November 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Special Report: Consumers have high expectations

Consumers have high expectations; satisfy them with a speedy, responsive e-commerce sit.

Making a good first impression is essential to delivering a consumer a satisfying shopping experience. In the bricks-and-mortar world there are numerous variables store managers and brand specialists must consider to ensure an exceptional experience, from the look and feel of the store to the ease of locating items. These are variables that directly impact a shopper's opinion of the retailer and the likelihood she'll spend money during her visit.

In the e-retail world, first impressions are formed by site performance. Web sites and pages that load content or images slowly can frustrate a shopper with a limited amount of time and patience, prompting her to go elsewhere to complete her purchase. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. experienced this firsthand. In February, the retailer reported a sharp decline in conversion rates for when the site's page load times increased from one to four seconds. Every one second improvement, however, increased conversions by up to 2%, with every 100 milliseconds of improvement increasing incremental revenue by up to 1%, the retailer says. Other large e-commerce sites have reported similar findings.

"Today, online consumers expect site pages to load in two seconds or less. If a page does not download in that time span, chances are consumers will leave the site and not come back," says Kevin Conway, global director of consumer brands for Savvis Inc., a provider of cloud computing and managed hosting services. "Online shoppers go to sites that are fast because they know they can accomplish their objectives quickly."

Pain points

Taking the time to understand consumers' expectations of web performance is the first step in identifying bottlenecks in the operating platform and the kind of pain they cause shoppers. The pain most online shoppers feel from a slow web site is impatience, which can quickly grow into frustration, as they have become accustomed to top–of-the-line performance from entertainment and news sites.

One factor that can slow page load times is the route the information takes to travel from the retailer's servers to the consumer's computer or mobile device. Savvis measures performance across a retailer's servers in major cities around the globe, the routes those servers use to deliver content to shoppers during high-traffic periods and how fast a retailer's servers respond to the multitude of web browsers and devices accessing the web site.

Because an overload of page requests caused by spikes in traffic can slow response time, adopting a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform can provide retailers with scalability during peak periods. It can also help retailers align their software costs with the ebb and flow of site traffic. SaaS software is hosted by the provider and accessed by the retailer via the Internet. Hosting software in a hosting provider's cloud platform rather than in a retailer's data center means less spending for the retailer on hardware and personnel.

"With a cloud-based infrastructure, retailers know they are going to have the resources needed to manage increased loads and that they will pay for the use of those resources only as needed," Conway says.

Real-world testing

But high traffic volumes are not the only culprit for performance slowdowns. Adding a new string of code for a promotion or a new site feature, such as video or links to Twitter and Facebook, not only can create glitches that slow performance, but can also take down the web site, Conway says. It is important that retailers test new applications under the actual conditions in which customers will be using them before rolling them out.

"Too often the rush to add a new feature or promotion cuts short the testing window for the software code," Conway says. "Testing must mirror how consumers will use the feature and the conditions under which it will be used or the results are not going to be accurate. Thorough testing must be part of any site performance strategy."

Retailers should also be sure to test integration points to applications that reside outside their storefront, but within their company, such as inventory and order management applications, and their connections to services provided by others, such as payment processors that authorize credit and debit cards at checkout. Slow response times by these systems may not be under a retailer's direct control, but consumers don't see that; they just see a poorly performing site.

"Having service level agreements that spell out performance expectations, even with other divisions within the company that are integrated to the web site, set performance expectations and accountability for meeting those expectations for everyone," Conway says. "Meaningful engagement and fast delivery of content are the table stakes needed in today's online shopping environment."

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