The Keynote U.S. Apparel Performance Index – A Review of Major U.S. Apparel Sites' Web Performance

Keynote monitors web performance across a number of U.S. and global industries – one of which is the U.S. apparel sector.

The Index measures the performance and availability of a common user journey or task on a retail website. For each site in the Apparel Index, a transaction script starts by going to the home page, searches for an item, adds it to the shopping cart, and then proceeds through the checkout process until the point where a visitor must either log into an account or enter payment details. We call this the "Total Response Time."

All measurements are taken from 10 large U.S. metropolitan areas (Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) on high-speed links attached to key points on the large U.S. Internet Service Provider (ISP) backbones. 

Keynote measures web performance 24/7, reporting weekly on how these global brands rank. The Keynote U.S. Apparel Index tracks 13 of the country's top apparel retailers' online performance.  Sites examined include Abercrombie, Eddie Bauer, Foot Locker, HSN, J. Crew, JC Penney, Kohls, Macys, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sears, and Victoria's Secret.

Measuring the true end user experience
Clearly online experience is critical for any retailer. Visitors' expectations are high in terms of speed, quality and ease of checkout. Microsoft research has found that a minuscule difference of 250 milliseconds is enough to give one site a competitive advantage over another.

Most benchmarking of page performance starts with the load time, or response time as it is commonly referred.  New industry standard timers supported in browsers can also now reveal performance more holistically — based on users' true experience during the page load. Website owners can now easily measure the various events in the process of navigating to a page, including timestamps for the starting and ending of key phases:
  • When does the first part of a page begin to appear on screen ("Time to First Paint")
  • When a page can be fully clicked, swiped and scrolled (“Time to Interactive Page”)
  • The total time a page takes to render completely ("Total User Experience Time")
These are important events in a page's lifecycle and make the difference between a user seeing something – and seeing nothing. As an example, imagine you visit two sites, each with a page load time of five seconds. If site A starts rendering content (“time to first paint”) in half a second and site B doesn't start showing you any content at all until four seconds, your perception of site A will be much more positive even though both sites have the same overall (“total user experience time”) of five seconds.

Within the Apparel industry, there can be big variations between the top sites and the slowest sites.  We see strong speeds for “Time to First Paint” for the top four names – Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom, Victoria Secret and Neiman Marcus. Each is coming in at the recommended sub-one second time to deliver an initial part of the page to the site visitor.

Next we look at "Time to Interact," when a visitor can actually click on a link or select an item. For any online retailer this time is critical. The Keynote Apparel index reports a sum of all the time to interactive pages along the purchase journey on the site.  Again the winners are Victoria Secret (4.49 seconds), J.Crew (6.22 seconds), Eddie Bauer (7.91 seconds) and Nordstrom (8 seconds). The losers are Kohls at a painful 23.56 seconds, Saks Fifth Avenue at 20.14 seconds and Foot Locker at 18.06.

The top four brands delivering the best "Total Response Time" (the time it takes to go to the home page, search for a product, and step through the checkout process to place an order) are Eddie Bauer (6.68 seconds), Victoria Secret (7.19), Nordstrom (8.66) and J.Crew (9.23).

At the bottom of the Index, Abercrombie delivers a slow First to Paint (an average of 2.39 seconds on each page in the journey) and an underwhelming Total Response Time of 17.35 seconds. HSN delivers a poor average Time to Paint time of 1.74 seconds and Total Response Time of 13.71 seconds. Any time that the Time to First Paint gets over 1.5 seconds on a page, it's an open invitation to the site visitor to give up and leave.

Taking a closer look at Kohl's we see that problems start with just loading the home page. In fact, a big concern in recent measurements seems to be with Kohl's use of a third-party service called a Content Distribution Network (CDN.)  A CDN is a large distribution of servers deployed across multiple data centers, designed to serve content to end-users with high availability and high performance. They are very commonly used to support high-traffic ecommerce and news sites, and for good reason.

With Kohl's, we see times when the CDN was actually broken for a few hours at a time, resulting in slow or failed loading of key assets on their pages in recent weeks. The lesson here is that it is not just your own site you must monitor but also any third parties connected with the site. These frequently affect performance but may not be directly under the site owner's control.

For this competitive space we are seeing the best and worst practices for high-performance web performance. Brands must closely watch that all-important Time to First Paint metric which ensures visitors engage and stay on a page. And the Time to Interactive Page can make for either a fast purchase and checkout, or a frustrating experience. Retailers that take their eyes off these important metrics stand at a competitive disadvantage as a competitor is just one quick search and click away.

Sign up for a free monthly email delivery of the Index. Use it to track how your company's performance is doing against the competition, or just to follow what some of the major names are setting as performance standards. Keynote runs a large number of U.S. and global Indexes, across a range of industries and government, which many organizations use as the benchmark to achieve their own optimum Web performance.

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