Christmas customer experience: Why site performance matters

(c)iStock/Martin Dimitrov

Customer experience is governed by how fast and responsive your online digital services are. But many seemingly well-designed sites can deliver surprisingly poor performance.

That’s going to be unacceptable regardless of the timing, but it’s especially critical when the festive shopping season starts. So what’s dragging down site speed and turning the online Christmas retail experience into a turkey?

Ironically, a great part of the answer actually lies in how online retailers are trying to offer a richer online customer experience.

A decade or more ago, online retail wasn’t exactly in its infancy but it wasn’t happening at today’s scale. Last year, online retail sales topped £24bn.

More significantly, it was clicks rather than brick and mortar shopping that saw the most growth, with online sales rising by 7.4% compared to 0.1% at physical stores.

So for Christmas 2016, there are no excuses for poor online shopping performance because this is where retailers are most likely to generate growth and volume sales.

Digital competition 'challenging'

However, competing digitally is incredibly challenging, especially when the competition is uniformly online and embracing similar offerings that combine digital sales with tradition brick and mortar. There is a real pressure to differentiate their retail experience – both physical and digital – from the competition.

The ultimate goal for online retailers in Christmas 2016 is to always stay as slim as possible

In the physical stores, this can mean exciting store design and extra services; online there is an investment in new ecommerce store fronts, social media integrations, and multi-media product experiences, among other developments.

All of these, as well as the related marketing analytics tools, are designed to create powerful online experiences that drive customer retention and increase sales.

What this means is that most online retail sites involve multiple third-party applications to improve customer experience and enable proactive, responsive digital marketing. While being deployed for exactly the right reasons, if the performance of any single one of these services degrades, it can drag down performance for an entire site or application.

In fact, most of the performance challenges on mobile retail sites during the holiday season last year were a direct result of third-party services.

Longer-loading sites

Overall, sites are getting fatter and potentially taking longer to load. This is an added complication as online retail is increasingly taking place on mobile devices.

Customers don’t care whether a page isn’t loading because of a third-party component that’s not fully in a retailer’s control. So what should be on the check list for how retailers prepare for Digital Christmas 2016?

  • Size matters: Image and HTML compression are critical to how to make websites smaller and thus run faster. Median ecommerce site size was 1.86MB in the 2015 festive season. This year the target size should be under 1.5MB. It is so important to have a lighter-weight version of a site for peak events, or at the very least to keep the most visited pages lighter than usual. Reduce dynamic content on your homepages or landing pages. Better still, move dynamic content to the capacity provided by content delivery networks (CDNs). Retailers can do some technical fixes here, like combining CSS and JavaScript files using utilities like Minify and combining images using CSS image sprites. Both of these techniques can minimise the number of HTTP requests it takes to load a page, a frequent cause of poor performance under heavy web traffic
  • Keep third-party tags in check: Third-party tags whether they’re used for advertising, social media, affiliate marketing, paid search, site analytics, or other purposes can add new digital marketing capabilities to a site, but also create new dependencies that can hurt a site’s performance. To reduce page load times, use a tag management system to “containerise” tags and improve the way they load
  • Test and manage APIs: This is especially important for mobile sites, which rely heavily on APIs that integrate with internal and external systems. This adds necessary functionality to sites, but those API integrations can also slow down web performance, especially when the number of concurrent users goes up when there’s a rush to online shop
  • Mind the back end: If possible, deploy a high-capacity stack of application servers and web servers on peak traffic days. They will take the brunt of the high traffic. Make sure you continue to test and validate your performance against this stack
  • Don’t forget the network: Make sure your network devices such as load balancers, routers, and switches can handle the extra traffic you’re expecting. Along the same lines, eliminate single points of failure in your network. If a load balancer error would take down your whole network if it failed, you need a better network design
  • Look outside the data centre: Make sure your hosting provider, CDN provider, external DNS provider, or any third party you deal with can handle the traffic you’re expecting. Ask the right questions and ensure that the necessary optimisations have been made
  • Prepare for failure just the same: If you follow steps 1-6, hopefully you won’t need step 7. But even the best prepared and tested sites can go down at some point under heavy load. Complete all backups and provision additional hardware to minimise recovery time if your site does go down. Have your customer communications — i.e. web splash page that tells customers a site is down, Twitter alerts, discount code for when the site is back up, etc. — ready to go. No one wants to get to this point, but if customers can’t access a site or complete transactions, any retailer will want to do everything it can to placate them

The ultimate goal for online retailers in Christmas 2016 is to always stay as slim as possible – especially on mobile – do proper capacity planning, be aware of what third parties are being hosted and their performance limitations, and have a thorough, comprehensive website and application monitoring strategy combined with powerful analytics to spot and respond to issues quickly and effectively.

Retailers who have embraced these principles will be positioned to offer the very best online customer experiences throughout the festive season.

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