No Excuses This Holiday Season for Poor Online Performance

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No Excuses This Holiday Season for Poor Online Performance

By Mehdi Daoudi - 12/08/2016
Every year the volume of online holiday shopping surpasses the prior year, and 2016 should be no exception - particularly given the recent closing of many physical stores. While the season’s booming business helps retailers hit revenue goals for the entire year, it’s not always a celebratory occasion. When a site or app is hit with a performance problem - slow load times, aborted shopping cart transactions, or even an outage - companies must acknowledge the lost sales and brand damage that occurs, and oftentimes these issues could have been avoided.

Notable peak holiday outages last year were Neiman-Marcus and Target. In 2014, it was Best Buy. But it’s 2016 now, and most major retailers have dealt with heavy traffic periods for over 15 years. There are simply no longer any excuses for a major brand to experience an online slowdown or outage during a peak holiday shopping period like Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Most should have learned by now from their own past mistakes, and the mistakes of peers, to ensure this season will be as trouble-free and profitable as possible.

The first major focus is realizing that holiday shopping has gone mobile, with that trend only accelerating. A seamless mobile shopping experience has become critical to retailers’ profits. ComScore research found a total of $12.7 billion was spent via smartphones and tablets during November-December 2015, a staggering 59% increase versus the same period in 2014. The ramifications of poor performance, particularly on mobile, are significant. Adobe predicts that mobile devices will exceed desktop shopping visits this season (53% vs. 47%), but poor mobile experiences will result in mobile actually driving a much smaller percentage of actual sales.

Optimize for Amazing Customer Experiences
Hopefully major problems will be kept to a minimum this holiday, with most companies having moved past the risk of catastrophic outages by being prepared for big traffic spikes. With that handled, the next priority is optimizing their web, app and mobile site performance to provide a super-fast, reliable shopping experience for users in all geographies. A few key optimization approaches can help mitigate any potential problems.

Images - slim them down: Each major shopping season, we see the same pattern among the smartest sites: they all lighten their page weights (total downloaded bytes) on key web pages or apps by eliminating excessive images or graphics. Images that must be kept are scaled down and compressed. This keeps load times fast.

It’s the simplest of approaches, but you’d be surprised how many sites we monitor weigh down, and therefore slow down, pages with too many visuals, or visuals that aren’t optimized for speedy delivery. Of course, you can add as many as you desire if you compensate with other approaches such as web acceleration services. We’ve seen several sites that load up on compelling graphics or video but still maintain super-fast load times.

Web acceleration services: This brings us to content delivery networks, now a staple among many companies. Given that increased geographic distance between your server and a customer also increases load time, it’s wise to employ these services, especially during the holidays. Web acceleration services are plug-and-play and require minimal or no setup time - all they need is a retailer’s URL. Cloudflare, Fastly, Instart Logic, and Verizon Edgecast are all good choices, and can have the added benefit of protecting sites from security risks as well.

Third parties – monitor them: Performance problems which are seemingly beyond your control can be the real culprit behind a spoiled holiday party. These are the third-party web services upon which all major Internet assets depend: social media tags, external shopping carts or payment services, video, or marketing tags to name a few - all of which hail from external servers.

If any one of these third-party services goes down, you either lose functionality or slow down an entire web page. Many sites now arrange their HTML to load essential, native site content first, so any third-party elements don’t slow the load time. Still these external elements must be addressed beforehand. We suggest that retailers pare down the number of external services to the bare minimum. We also urge retailers to monitor each third-party closely to make certain they are performing up to spec, and to hold them to the service level agreements for performance.

Realize that when your online store is unavailable, it’s the equivalent of literally shutting the doors of your physical store. When your site slows, that’s the equivalent of having a customer stand in a too-long line at checkout. Neither scenario contributes to strong customer satisfaction or the health of your company. Given the growing complexity of the web, sure, anything can break; witness the DNS attack that took down many sites in October. But aside from these rare events, we’re now 20 years into the e-commerce era, and most typical peak period slowdowns or outages can be prevented.

Mehdi Daoudi is the CEO of Catchpoint.