April 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Many moving parts

While holding up on new features and functions, e-retailers must monitor and manage site performance - and the customer experience.

It’s an old adage that a merchant must know who its customers are. But today web merchants need to know a whole lot more about site visitors than demographics or purchase history if they’re to deliver an online experience that keeps customers coming back. They must measure and understand such metrics as where customers are connecting from, what operating system they’re running, what browsers they’re using, what versions of browsers they have, and what ISP they’re using.

In the early days of e-commerce, shoppers-even merchants themselves-accepted that things didn’t always work perfectly online. Page loads might dawdle, and the infamous 404 error message was a familiar sight. Now, however, shoppers’ expectations of site performance have risen even as performance demands on site infrastructure have increased.

Poor execution
Rich media functions, hosted services, content served up by third parties, even content posted on sites by customers themselves all are new opportunities for e-retailers to differentiate themselves from the competition and keep customers engaged. Poorly executed, however, they also represent more opportunities for site performance to falter.

That means retailers that incorporate such bells and whistles are in a balancing act: keep up with the Joneses-bypass them, if possible-but ensure what is being offered to shoppers in site features and functionality is delivered in a way that keeps shoppers satisfied and doesn’t slow down the site or its applications. And that’s a promise that must hold up no matter where customers are accessing the site from and no matter what kind of equipment they’re using.

Given the tremendous variety in technology that connects online retailers with consumers, that’s a tall order-one that retail I.T. operations struggle with daily. To handle it all as sites grow more complex, online retailers are taking a multi-pronged approach. They’re using technology that pushes some site applications out to a shopper’s browser and looking to outside content servers to ease the load on their own servers. And they’re committing to a new kind of performance monitoring and testing that goes beyond the basics of load times and page availability to reach deeper into an end-user’s experience.

Smart retailers are using lessons learned to look ahead, and putting those lessons at the center of a new attitude about building future generations of their sites. Instead of launching new site features and functionality and refining them afterward based on what customers experience, they’re looking to optimize the experience while features are in the design stage.

“We want to supply a better experience to our customers, but we’re cautious about where our brands might introduce some of these rich features,” says Bob McManus, vice president for online development and operations at Redcats, an international multi-brand retailer with 21 globally-dispersed web sites. When it adds a feature to a site, Redcats weighs any potential compromise of site performance against the value the feature delivers.

Retailers are starting to say they cannot afford to put something into production and then get angry calls or see a drop off in yield, and then have to look back and try to figure out what is going on, adds Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at performance management services vendor Gomez Inc. “We’re seeing this as a trend with some of our customers and their next-generation infrastructure and web applications and platforms,” he says. “They say, ‘We’re pushing out all this code. Let’s understand what the effect is going to be first.’”

Location, location, location
For example, Gomez customer Redcats is particular about specifically where and on what pages it adds rich media functionality, as the result of an experience it had early on.

A previous design for one of the sites embedded video on the home page. The video itself took longer to load than expected, causing an unexpected delay for customers. Performance monitoring tools alerted site managers that the download time was outside the bounds of the site’s service-level agreement with Redcats’ central I.T. operation, the platform that supports all of the brand’s sites.

Redcats resolved the issue by removing the video from the home page and instead putting it on its own pop-up page after the home page loaded, McManus explains. This allowed customers to see the fully-loaded home page knowing their browser wasn’t hung up and give them the option of closing the video and continuing with shopping.

Beyond solving the immediate issue, this experience also has become part of Redcats’ thinking in how it approaches upgrades and redesigns to all sites going forward. McManus says Redcats has built a robust platform with some features developed internally and some imported from outside vendors. He adds it is ready to serve up new functionalities whenever a site’s business managers deem it ready. Pricing for monitoring services at Gomez is consumption-dependent, ranging from $300 for starter packages to $1 million annually for a global enterprise.

Some sites protect site performance by reducing the load on internal servers, pushing some functionality supporting features such as product configurations or shopping carts onto a web shopper’s browser. If a site’s well designed, experts say, adding more features and applications needn’t overload the retailer’s servers.

Streaming video doesn’t have to compromise the performance of a site if site operators know baseline demand and adequately calculate needed capacity. “That’s just data. It’s a pipe issue,” says David Langlais, vice-president of marketing at ProactiveNet Inc., an I.T. management services vendor.

Langlais notes some new text-based functions for sites, such as blogging, are of such low bandwidth demand they’re unlikely to cause site performance issues outside of an event-triggered spike-an event less likely on a retail site than a media site, for example. Other capacities, such as serving up images, can be offloaded to outside content serving providers, similarly reducing potential choke points in site performance.

The customer experience served up on retail sites today increasingly involves a combination of content and functionality from multiple sources delivered via a system that includes variables attached to different servers and ISPs. But it’s the last mile-a user’s browser-that may be the weakest link in the chain.

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