Online shoppers' need for speed

By Darren Vengroff, chief scientist at RichRelevance.

In the online retail environment, a shopper's time equates to money literally.  Leading Internet powerhouses such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon concur that online, business is gained (or lost) every 100 milliseconds.  That extra fraction of a second for an enhanced graphic to load can mean the difference between a saleor a bounced session. Without timely uploads, retailers may lose sales to the tune of one-percent for every millisecond in delay (Google Search/Mi­crosoft's Bing, 2009).

By not offering customers lightning fast experiences, retailers stand to lose not only new business but risk damaging customer retention and loyalty over a custom­ers' lifetime value. In short, the customer's need for speed must be satisfied.

Industry Giants Acknowledge Time is Money  
Time is money, and in the true measure of how much latency can affect sales, Google, Microsoft and Amazon tested their sites to ascertain the break­ing point for sales impact. The results, mentioned above, likely came as a surprise: online, business is gained (or lost) every 100 milliseconds.

At online bookseller O'Reilly's 2009 Velocity Conference, Jake Brutlag of Google Search and Eric Schurman of Microsoft's Bing presented the results of user per­formance tests that impact the bottom line.
 
These long-term tests assessed what aspects of performance are most important for the user expe­rience. Testing page load perceptions and realities showed the impact of slower page loads on user re­tention.  In a recent study by Forrester Research and Akamai, it was determined that two seconds is the new threshold that an average online shopper is willing to wait for a web page to load and 40 percent of shoppers will wait no more than three seconds before abandoning a retail or travel site (Forrester and Akamai 2009).  Delays of mere seconds impact business metrics and lead to lost sales.  In fact, 79% of dissatisfied online shoppers are less likely to buy from the site again, and 64% choose to purchase from another online store (Forrester and Akamai 2009).   

'Speed matters' is not just lip service.  Widespread acknowledgment of the importance of speed is best exemplified by Google's recent adoption of page load time as one of the factors it uses to determine search result rankings.  On the Google blog post covering the announcement, it was noted that "Faster sites create happy users and we've seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there. But faster sites don't just improve user experience; recent data shows that improving site speed also reduces operating costs. Like us, our users place a lot of value in speed that's why we've decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings." (Google Webmaster Central Blog, April 2010)

Page load times play a critical role in sustaining customer engagement and loyalty.  By reducing its home page size by about 25% and thereby decreasing upload time, Google Maps' traffic went up 10% in the first week, and an additional 25% in the following three weeks, implying increased new and return traffic (Farber 2006).  Microsoft has also been aware of the speed issue for a number of years.  When its search results pages were slowed by 1 second, queries per user declined by 1%, and ad clicks per user declined by 1.5%. After slowing the search results page by 2 seconds, queries per user declined by 2.5%, and ad clicks per user declined by 4.4% (Kohavi 2007).  The link between fast page load times and customer loyalty is particularly relevant for a customer segment that is important to all retailers: high spenders.  The same Forrester study referenced earlier found that 61% percent of online shoppers who spend more than $1,500 online per year consider quick page load times a primary influence for continued loyalty.

Employing the Need for Speed Online
Retailers can and should take these precautions to ensure they are partnering with third-party solu­tions that don't deflect buyers but rather encourage engagement:

-  According to Amazon.com, the actual page load time should not be greater than 100 milliseconds. Every 100 ms in page load time equates to 1% in lost sales.

-  Ensure third party vendor/partners (e.g. providers of recommendations, ratings, reviews, etc.) employ a multiple data centre approach so there are redundant and geographically load-balanced centres working to ensure minimal latency for server calls. This will ensure that your customers are getting the fastest page load possible.

-  Ask software vendors to share their lifetime value strate­gies with you as represented by their product offerings as well as service delivery levels. If a vendor/partner is not focused on the lifetime value of the end consumer then they are not focused on your future success.

-  Shop your site!   Have you and others on your team constantly peruse pages to test your site and ensure the customer experience is optimal.

It's All a Matter of Time
Time is the new currency in the online environment. As a retailer, you know that repeat customers are your greatest asset, particularly in these economically challenged times. While online shoppers desire ample infor­mation to make confident online purchase decisions, they also need that content delivered without delay. No matter how relevant and rich the online experience (ratings, reviews, recommendations), without a timely upload meaning a fraction of a second you will lose sales and long-term customer value.  It's not just about protecting the bottom line, it's about ensuring the continued viability of your retail brand.  

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