July 2, 2012, 10:40 AM

Don't Dilly-Dally

Technical tricks help retailers add zip to the performance of mobile sites.

Lead Photo

Sierra Trading Post Inc. knows today's mobile consumers expect mobile retailer sites to load on smartphones quickly. Every extra second of delay could mean the difference between a happy shopper and a lost sale.

The average m-commerce site home page load time for 30 retailers on the Keynote Mobile Commerce Performance Index, published exclusively by Internet Retailer, was 7.04 seconds for the week ending June 17. Mobile and web performance management firm Keynote Systems Inc. says retailers should aim for four seconds. Sierra Trading Post aims for three.

The most critical step in ensuring fast mobile site performance is hiring a performance monitoring firm that helps keep a site on target, spots problems, and provides guidance on how to fix problems and speed download times, says Christopher Lange, web operations manager at Sierra Trading Post, which uses the AlertSite performance monitoring system from SmartBear Software.

"The most important thing is what you use to track page load time," Lange says. "Are you using a service to get a baseline? As you add things to the site, what does it do to page speed and availability?"

Beyond that, there are a host of tricks and tweaks of the trade. They involve getting familiar with some technical terms, such as "CSS sprites" and "gzip compression." But once a retailer masters the available technology, which is not hard to do, the results can be dramatic.

Sierra Trading Post is a prime example. Measuring a two-week period in June, Sierra reports its average m-commerce site page load time on a smartphone linked to a 3G wireless network was under five seconds every day bar one, when it was just over seven seconds. That's a third faster than the typical retailer on the Keynote performance index.

Performance top of mind

Other retailers have little choice but to follow Sierra's lead, as consumers won't wait. For that reason, many retailers factor in performance as they design their mobile commerce sites, although not all make speed the top priority.

M-commerce site design typically goes in one of three directions. First, a rich, lavish site built with less emphasis on speed. Second, a site that finds a tricky balance between rich and fast. And third, a slim, lightweight site built for speed.

Regardless of the style, the data that make up a site must travel over wireless networks, which are by nature slower than wired ones. But consumers demand speed, regardless of how they're shopping. 49% of mobile web users expect a web page to load on a smartphone as fast or almost as fast as the page would load on a desktop computer, according to a 2011 Compuware Gomez survey of 4,014 mobile web users. And 22% expect the page to load faster on a smartphone. Only 29% expect a slower load time, which is more realistic, experts say.

What's more, if consumers are dissatisfied with a company's mobile site performance, 26.8% of mobile web users say they are less likely to purchase from that company—across all channels.

"The big challenge is how to balance a rich user experience with performance," says Ken Harker, senior consultant at Keynote Systems. "The rich user experience requires a lot of bytes of data or a lot of server requests for images and scripts and style sheets to make things look flashy and nice. When it comes to performance you want to be as efficient as possible. Companies can find the right balance, but it takes will and effort."

Fit and trim

Sierra Trading Post generally chose to be fit and trim, with the exception of two rotating hero shots on its home page.

"We knew to have a successful mobile site we could not replicate all the features of our main site," Lange says. "We started with basic browsing, basic search and being able to order. Start simple, then begin tracking from there and adding more features as time goes on and bandwidth improves for mobile devices."

Another retailer, Edwin Watts Golf Inc., chose a stripped-down design featuring easy navigation to get customers to products and checkout as speedily as possible. The retailer launched its m-commerce site after migrating last year to an e-commerce platform from UniteU Technologies Inc., which offers m-commerce capability. UniteU's site architecture was built with speed in mind, says Robb McCarter, director of e-commerce at Edwin Watts Golf, one of the reasons the retailer chose its technology.

"They do the heavy lifting on the server side, so it's not really dependent on the phone," McCarter says. Pages are pieced together on the server to reduce the number of files transmitted to the smartphone, he explains. "They decreased the number of objects they load for the mobile site down to the teens versus 40 to 50 on the main site."

Mobile commerce sites can be very simple, McCarter adds. "You don't have to get into a crazy creative process on layout," he says. "It's a bunch of bars, up and down navigation, keeping a header and some branding elements at the top. For the product page we keep a precise amount of information so it loads fast."

The retailer also uses technology from LiquidPixels Inc. that enables image zoom, but also compresses images for better performance.

McCarter says the mobile commerce functionality of UniteU is so inexpensive—he declines to reveal the exact cost—that in the nine months since the site launched Edwin Watts has made back its mobile investment 45 times over. And the average page load time is a rapid 2.9 seconds.

Content delivery networks

To make similar gains in performance, many retailers employ content delivery networks, for both e-commerce and m-commerce sites.

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