Top six Best Practices for online retail performance

Online sales provide the only glimmer in a dark recessionary period for retailers.  You cannot afford to lose a customer because of a site quality issue. 

Ben Rushlo, Keynotes Director of Consulting, works with some of the largest and highest performing retailers, and his list of six best practices for online retailers offers practical and vital information on how you can make sure you are providing the best possible experience for your end users.  Use this checklist to make sure that poor performance, transaction errors and other deal-killers arent driving hard-won customers from your site.

Practice 1: Measure Accurately 

Every successful online retail strategy begins with measuring site quality objectively and accurately. You cannot afford to rely on internal testing or anecdotal customer feedback.  It does you no good to know what happens in your data centre or from a single location. Your customers are accessing your retail site from the internet and throughout the country, or the world, not from one location. If they are having problems accessing the site, they wont care that your internal measurements show that everything is working as it should.  We still come across many major retailers who have no external measurement/monitoring. This is like flying a plane without instruments. It can be done, but I would not advise it.

Practice 2: Compare to Best-in-Class Sites

You may have accurate data on your Web site, and even on how performance is improving in various segments of your site, but until you take the data on your site and compare it to other retailers sites; you wont really know how you stack up.  Compare your data with that of top retailers and you will have a much better idea on where to focus your improvement efforts. Third parties are invaluable for data collection from a range of competitive sites.  The problem with our data-saturated age is that many retailers have no context for what performance data means.  Data without context is just noise.

Practice 3: Watch your Partners 

Todays retail sites contract much of their content from third party providers (partners); the sites are no longer fully under their control.  When you utilise outside ad services, tracking calls, product zoom functionality, and in the extreme case full outsourcing through something such as Amazon Hosting, you must measure the performance of your partners content as well as your own so that you can demand immediate action when problems occur.  A customer will not give you (the retailer) a "pass" when the site doesnt work because of a third party failure. They wont even know it is a third party issue. The customer will blame you, so you have to keep your partners honest.

Practice 4: Pay Attention to the "Tail"

Too many retailers are lulled into a false sense of security by averages. You look at data and, on average, things looks ok.  But, the average can be misleading. You need to look at what is happening at the edges of the performance curve.  For example, you can have, on average, a fast shopping cart but for 10 percent of users it can be VERY slow and they may be abandoning the site at a high rate.  Look beyond the average into more holistic performance management that includes variability (by time, hour and geography), page construction (size and makeup), outages (or variability of errors) and other factors that will show you how often important user expectations are not being met.  You might on average have good performance throughout your home region, but have very bad performance in a region you care about.  Watch out for the tail!

Practice 5: Test Using the Browser Your Customers Use

Web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX, Flash and Flex push more and more of the experience to the users browser. These tools make a more compelling retail site but if you are not measuring how your site performs via a real browser used by your customers, you can miss up to 50 percent of what the user actually experiences.  Dont make the mistake of managing your business using data that has no correlation to the actual experience. Its a big waste of money and the information you are working with is not really actionable.

Practice 6: Prepare for the Peaks

Make sure that you are ready to handle peak traffic so that you dont lose sales.  Online retail traffic ebbs and flows, but in this recession more traffic is being driven online because of easier comparison shopping, gas savings and other factions.  Furthermore, each year you can expect traffic increases during certain hot retail periods such as Christmas, Valentines Day, and Mothers Day, or when you are announcing a new product or a Web site redesign. The only way to certify your site can handle variations in traffic is to load test.  Load testing simulates real users to test the ability of the site to scale.  If you dont load test under realistic conditions and from outside the data centre (i.e., where your users live) you wont be able to accurately measure how well your site performs when high volumes of people want to buy your products.  The best way to damage your brand is to be down or very slow during a period when demand is high.

Plan to Succeed

Knowing with confidence that end users are able to access your site, find and order what they need quickly, can do a lot to help you sleep better at night.  Utilising these six best practices, drawn from my years of experience in consulting with some of the most successful online retailers in the world can help give you a competitive edge in optimising your online retail site.


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