October 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT:Site performance managing a multi-faceted challenge

Retailer web sites are more complex than ever. They often rely on outside companies to provide such applications and content as shopping carts, video and customer reviews, and on the consumer’s web browser to assemble the content and render it properly. At the same time, e-commerce sites must mesh flawlessly with back-end technologies, such as inventory and order management systems. Making all those parts come together in a few seconds is no small challenge.

Retailers depend on their online presence to convert visitors to shoppers and ultimately into repeat customers. Site performance plays a key role in creating a unique brand presence for the retailer and building customer loyalty and a sense of community among site visitors.

“Every online retailer wants to deliver a great customer experience and that starts with site availability and site performance,” says Ken Godskind, chief strategy officer for AlertSite, provider of web performance management solutions. “Site performance is all about how fast pages load, how long it takes to transition from one part of the store to another, and how well the various functions of the site are performing.”

While the content on a retail site may come from several sources-including e-commerce vendors, web analytics and product reviews providers, and other third parties-it is the retailer’s responsibility to make sure key store functionality is working well for consumers at all times. This includes landing pages, home page, search functionality, shopping cart, authentication and checkout. If any of these elements perform poorly, it is the retailer’s brand consumers will remember, not the third-party provider of those services.

“The performance and success of all the elements that make up a retailer’s site is critical to business success,” says Godskind. “The shopping experience a retailer provides on their site influences their brand reputation. If the performance of the site is not satisfying to the customer it can impact more than sales.”

First impressions

The consumer starts forming an opinion of the online retailer with the very first page viewed, which is often a landing page linked to pay-per-click advertising, organic search results or an e-mail marketing campaign. How well that page performs is critical.

“Landing pages are a key first impression for customers, and if the speed at which they load disappoints the customer, the marketing dollars spent to bring customers to them are wasted,” says Godskind. “Page downloads, speed of checkout, logging into an account, these are all elements of the site that must be monitored closely.”

While good site performance requires that a retailer’s own data center do its job properly, that no longer guarantees that the retailer’s site is showing up as intended on the consumer’s PC screen. The only way to really know what the consumer is seeing is to look at a retail site from the viewpoint of the customer and the technology the shopper is using to access the site.

“Retailers need to make sure their web site is fully compatible with the browsers customers use, that the size and resolution of the customer’s screen can support the graphical elements of their site, and that shoppers logging in from great geographic distances from the server hosting the site receive the same level of performance as those customers that are closer in,” says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer of performance strategies for web application management firm Gomez Inc. “All of these variables impact performance, and retailers need to take them into consideration when setting the bar on performance.”

Still, there is more to ensuring that a web site is performing at an optimal level than monitoring the applications running on the site, their compatibility with consumer PCs and the back-end servers that deliver those applications. What really counts is how consumers perceive a site to be performing, and the simplest way to gather that information is to ask them.

“Gathering consumer opinions about site performance is important because looking at performance strictly from an I.T. perspective is not going to tell retailers what consumers expect as far as performance,” says Brad Hokamp, senior vice president, Hosting Business Unit, for Savvis Inc., a provider of outsourced managed computing and network infrastructure.

Among the ways retailers can gather customer opinions about performance is to host blogs and chat rooms where customers can express their opinions about a site.

“One of the most effective ways to know consumer thresholds for poor performance is to get direct feedback through social networking forums, such as blogs,” Hokamp says. “Retailers can track customer behavior patterns to pinpoint where on the site customers abandon the shopping session, but that does not provide as full a picture of what customers expect from a performance standpoint as consumer feedback.”

It’s a wide, wide web

What’s more, retailers must recognize that site performance is a moving target, and that consumer expectations are set by all the web sites they visit, including entertainment, news and sports sites that live or die by providing fast response and a great user experience.

“If a customer frequents a site that has faster page downloads, even if it is not a retail site, it influences their expectations of site performance,” says Mouline of Gomez. “Taking the customer’s perspective of site performance means going beyond demographic information and digging deeper to understand what influences where and how consumers set the bar on site performance.”

Once retailers understand their customer’s expectations of site performance, they can begin to prioritize performance metrics. Establishing minimum performance standards for page downloads, for landing page response times and the speed with which site search results are returned are good starting points.

Recent research shows that many consumers begin to get impatient when they have to wait more than two seconds for a page to download, while a similar survey showed they were willing to wait four seconds in 2006, just three years ago. That shows how quickly expectations are changing. Retailers that can’t perform to the level consumers expect today are likely to find many online shoppers quickly leaving their sites without making a purchase.

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