June 30, 2011, 12:00 AM

Web Site Performance

New e-commerce tools can tax web site performance.

Lead Photo

When Bon-Ton Stores Inc. took e-commerce platform management in-house in 2010, the retailer found itself making a trade-off: more flexibility and control, but new site performance issues.

The department store chain recognized it needed tools to identify problems, such as prolonged load time after clicking an online promotion. With the technology it was using, it could take days—or longer—to identify problems and fix them, says Dan Gerard, divisional vice president of technologies and web services.

To address the problem, Bon-Ton implemented an application performance management system that can identify the source of slowly responding online pages and take immediate action to fix them, Gerard says. The system points to the software or database links causing a slowdown, and presents that information graphically.

Bon-Ton's experience illustrates a common challenge for web retailers, namely that adding web site features can affect site loading times. And that's a problem now that online shoppers have become accustomed to fast sites. And if web sites and pages load slowly on normal days, that will be compounded during peak holiday shopping times, such as the Friday and Monday after Thanksgiving.

But e-retailers' overall site performance continues to improve, according to consumer data gathered by ForeSee Results, a web research firm. The firm's retail satisfaction benchmark survey, based on consumers' experiences with retail web sites, includes questions on what online shoppers think of site performance in terms of page loading speed, speed consistency and error-free page loads. Each aspect of site performance is rated on a 10-point scale.

Data from February 2010 and 2011 show e-commerce sites score high for customer satisfaction And that was across all four categories ForeSee uses to categorize e-retailers: web-only merchants, retail chains, catalogers and manufacturers that sell directly to consumers.

Catalogers led the way both years, with a score of 85 of a possible 100 in 2011, and 83 in 2010. And though year-to-year comparisons aren't always valid because the companies tested can change, catalogers seem to be working hard at delivering consistent experiences to their web shoppers, says Rhonda Berg, research director at ForeSee Results.

The top 100 retailers in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide averaged a score of 82 in 2011 in ForeSee's benchmark study and 81 in 2010, indicating consistently high levels of customer satisfaction with web site performance.

The standards of good site performance are simple to describe, but sometimes hard to achieve, Berg says, because it's hard to know how much is enough regarding quick page loading speeds, pages loading completely, speed consistency, videos, and special features that don't pause or stop working.

For Bon-Ton Stores, a key benefit of its new application performance management technology was in solving an issue related to Bon-Ton's many "e-spots" or online promotional displays it runs for many brands on several web sites. The custom design of these e-spots exposed a performance issue, Gerard says. Using the application performance management tool, Bon-Ton was able to quickly discover the problem and apply a fix, he adds. Bon-Ton operates stores and web sites under the brands Bon-Ton, Bergner's, Boston Store, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's and Younkers.

When adding or upgrading technology, Bon-Ton and other retailers must be careful to monitor results to avoid subtracting site performance.

"We conduct continuous development efforts and are constantly adding function," Gerard says. "When we add new functions we know we need to do before-and-after tests to assess what the new functionality is going to cost in terms of performance on the site."

billb@verticalwebmedia.com

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