February 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

10 Ways to Boost Site Performance

From faster payment screening to optimized images and fixing broken links, retailers tell how they have created better shopping experiences for their online shoppers.

In online retailing, a $61 billon a year market, customers expect fast-loading pages and links that take them quickly to the products they want. Internet shoppers have high expectations for performance and customer service. They won’t put up with broken links, time-out errors and shopping carts that take too long to complete transactions. They know that if one retailer’s site doesn’t perform up to their expectations, a more satisfying shopping experience is only a click away.

Given the maturity of business-to-consumer electronic commerce and the wide availability of performance hardware, software and services, shoppers assume that Internet retailing sites will operate nearly problem-free. But when it comes to resolving performance problems, many retailers aren’t simply failing to keep pace with industry standards, they’re dealing with much more serious navigation, site search and content management issues.

Recent performance studies suggest that many web shopping sites strained under the load of holiday shopping volume, resulting in customers who couldn’t complete a transaction or load a home page in under 60 seconds.

While many customers will put up with frustrations for the sake of avoiding a trip to the mall, retailers still must address the challenge of web site performance with better business practices, new technology, and changes to site design and navigation. Following are 10 ways web merchants can improve performance in such key areas as site navigation and order processing.

1. Streamlining fraud prevention

Nearly 60% of online merchants report fraud rates of 1% or more, but automated systems can help retailers contain fraud and improve site performance by reviewing suspicious transactions more quickly.

Fighting fraud is an every-day battle for higher-end merchants such as Torrance, Calif.-based PC Mall Inc. On a typical day, online fraud detection may flag as many as 30% of the electronics retailer’s transactions for further review. Before automating the process, a PC Mall employee took three hours up to a full day to review a single transaction before sending it for final processing or further investigation.

With the process automated, PC Mall has reduced the number of transactions in need of manual review by 10% and resolved many flagged orders in under 20 minutes. The result: Faster service for customers, as well as reduced costs for the retailer. “We are improving time savings while being no less diligent in looking for potential fraud problems,” says Ken Sayers, director of credit at PC Mall. “With the performance measures we’re taking, we’re getting legitimate orders on their way to the customer as fast as possible.”

Prior to automation, suspicious transactions that PC Mall’s fraud detection system flagged for review were moved into a special database and manually reviewed by one of 15 full-time employees. Fraud detection specialists compared the customer’s shipping and billing information against other internal databases and then called the merchant bank, the credit card company and the customer to cross check the information. If the validity of the transaction was still in doubt, a PC Mall employee had to manually verify all information, including shipping address, phone number and credit card number.

Working with its internal information technology staff and CyberSource Corp., a provider of risk management and electronic payment solutions to Internet retailers, PC Mall has automated most manual reviewing procedures and integrated its fraud detection systems with new applications that automatically cross check a transaction against databases of repeat customers and shipping and billing information. The new system can, for instance, check a red flagged transaction to see if previous orders were sent to the same address using the same credit card and shipping carrier.

Improving the performance of its fraud detection system has been a two-year, continuous process for PC Mall. The newest applications will increase the number of SKUs in the comparison databases and analyze problem transactions in more detail by time, date and geographic region. “We’ve speeded up the order-taking and completion process by expediting our internal review system and automating procedures,” Sayers says.

2. Finding and fixing broken links

By now it should be obvious to web merchants that broken links and pages that don’t open with a click are a detriment to customers looking for a trouble-free shopping experience. Yet finding and fixing broken links on merchandise and customer service pages continues to be a performance headache for many Internet retailers. In a recent survey of 239 consumer-oriented web sites, Jupiter Research found that one in seven sites failed a test of links to other pages.

“Internet retailing is mainstream now and shoppers expect merchants to put up sites with deep content and lots of images,” says David Schatsky, Jupiter’s senior vice president of research. “But unless retailers really troubleshoot, more pages must be monitored because of increased problems with broken links and redirects that go nowhere.” Jupiter found that more than 50% of clicks that went nowhere were routed through manual redirect or tracking scripts.

One of the major problems with fixing broken links has been identifying them in the first place. Most online retailers only fix broken links when customers call or e-mail to complain or when the web development staff comes across problem links during site upgrades or routine maintenance.

But with broken links high on the list of reasons shoppers take their business elsewhere, merchants are becoming more aggressive in spotting and fixing problems. Crutchfield Inc., online retailer of home and car electronics, has developed a plan to determine why broken links and other errors were occurring and then implemented a sophisticated monitoring system to spot-and fix-problems as soon as they occur.

With 3 million unique visitors to Crutchfield.com each month, the retailer used to rely on complaints relayed by customer service representatives to the web development staff before acting on problems. If a number of broken links were reported, webmasters, application developers and other technical support staff met to determine where the problem was occurring. Then they needed to adjust all problem servers or database functions-a task that could take hours.

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