July 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Web Site Performance Management

Retailers can't disappoint consumers who expect speed

If a shopper is stuck waiting for a retailer's web site to load, or worse, if a site is unavailable, the merchant may lose that shopper, and many more. That's one reason why web site performance is crucial to a retailer's operations.

"Businesses do not understand the impact of poor site performance. Consumers not only will bail a session or a cart, but they may not return," says Brian Walker, principal analyst, e-commerce, at Forrester Research Inc. "We have found that over a quarter of consumers are less likely to shop a brand offline if they have a bad experience online. That is a huge impact for multichannel retailers and brands as nearly 50% of total U.S. retail sales today are influenced by the web."

Consequently, retailers must understand that consumers' expectations of site performance are very high—and work to meet those expectations.

Great expectations

"Broadband is now in two-thirds of U.S. households. Add the fact that many consumers are shopping from work with high-speed Internet access and it is easy to see why consumers are expecting high-performance sites," Walker says. "Consumers develop their expectations from the leading search, media and shopping sites, and that translates to expectations they have for all sites, including online retail sites. From our research we know that nearly half of consumers expect site performance of under two seconds."

E-commerce page download times typically range from 1.5 to 5 seconds; the average is 2.5 seconds, industry experts say. So many retailers are coming close to meeting expectations.

In fact, consumers think site performance is generally quite good, according to ForeSee Results. The firm's retail satisfaction benchmark includes data on what online shoppers think of site performance in terms of quick, consistent and accurate page loads. The aggregate score for retail web sites is a commendable 81 on a 100-point scale, says Lee Pavach, director of marketing at ForeSee Results.

"Category scores range from a high of 84 for apparel and accessories sites to 75 for computers and electronics sites in the February 2010 benchmark," Pavach says. "Call center/catalog retail sites were perceived to have the best site performance, with an aggregate score of 83, while Internet pure-plays, multichannel and manufacturer direct retail sites scored 81."

Numerous challenges

While retailers in general are doing pretty well with site performance, there is room for improvement. And various challenges stand in the way.

One such challenge is friction between the marketing and I.T. departments, experts say. Marketers want to dress up sites with features and functions that may slow page-loading, while I.T. staff are looking to streamline as much as possible to ensure quick page downloads.

"And then there is the fact that for many retailers, bandwidth, high-performance hosting environments and content delivery networks are expenses they would rather not pay," Walker says. "But today it is a requirement that you leverage solutions which help cache, accelerate and deliver content to improve performance to the consumer shopping from home or accessing your site from a smartphone."

Bernardine Wu, CEO and founder of FitForCommerce, an e-commerce consultancy, suggests several ways retailers can meet performance expectations.

"Test both page load time and site capacity," she says. "Look to optimize the slow, highest-impact pages first. Define your acceptability criteria for page load times. Consider using a content delivery network for larger assets. And plan your future capacity based on your current conversion rates and your planned order volume."

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