December 1, 2004

Holiday Retail Web Site Performances: Steady but Slow

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

If the "Max" in Office Max is supposed to refer to the amount of time its e-commerce server takes to respond, it's aptly named.

And Target's target is apparently not lightning-fast e-commerce experiences. Those conclusions are courtesy of the latest round of Web traffic analysis from the folks at Keynote Systems.

At the top of the responsive list were frequent winners Eddie Bauer and Office Depot, followed quickly by Wal-Mart and Costco. Rounding out the middle were Sears, JC Penny and Best Buy.

Keynote's figures have the average response time for completing a transaction on the e-commerce transaction index at typically 13 to 14 seconds. This week, testing showed that the speed for completing a transaction slowed to more than 21 seconds. The success rate for completing a transaction on the same index fell to 80 percent, while the average reliability for completing a transaction on the index is usually 97 percent.

How much of an effect these multisecond delays will have on shoppers is hard to accurately project. Holiday shoppers are more likely to be making multiple purchases for other people—going through their proverbial list and e-checking them twice.

Are those shoppers less tolerant of those delays because they have more to buy at different sites and because they have less of an emotional tie to the product? Or are they more tolerant because of the supposedly festive nature of the activity and their realistic expectation of slower everything around the holidays?

"The customer during the holidays is going to be browsing more and doing more comparing. And the use of search engines sharply increases during this time of year," said Al Hurlebaus, director of e-commerce for CompUSA. "Some of them are putting themselves on various wish lists for a particular item. The ease of use of a Web site at this time of year is certainly extremely important."

One way to put the e-commerce delay question into context: Remember shopping in a major mall in mid-December. How patient and cooperative were drivers poised to pounce in the parking lot? How about those about to tackle a pile of 70-percent-off merchandise?

"The holiday customer's level of patience is limited," said Roopak Patel, senior Internet analyst for Keynote's public services division. "Their attention span can't go beyond two to three seconds. That's what the Web has done: It's reset expectations."

Retailers looking for tips to accelerate performance need to look far beyond different hardware and software improvements, Patel said. His suggestion: Focus on site design (especially data placement) and on the search engine. That's where the biggest return will come from, he said.

"It's not just a matter of selecting the right tools. Make sure that your site has no extraneous information. Do some rearranging to put the most relevant stuff way out front. If I make my site easily navigable, users will come back day after day," Patel said. "You must also make sure that your search is more effective and test your back end so see that it can support" expected traffic.

CompUSA's Hurlebaus said his site deployed technology this year to accelerate search, partly by incorporating a customer's shopping history to be able to retrieve saved searches more quickly.

CompUSA also focused on making the checkout process shorter and easier. "We reformatted our checkout process, which made it easier for the customers to see where they were in the process, and we removed two of our processing pages," he said. "Our credit approval process has now moved from about 12 seconds to about 3 seconds."

Faster, easier service? That's enough to get some consumers to put their retailer on their holiday card list.