In my opinion: performance matters more than ever on this side of the retail ‘looking glass’, says Varnish Software

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By Lars Larsson, CEO, Varnish Software

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Larsson: retailers can future-proof their websites

Retail isn’t just changing; it’s traversing ‘through the looking glass’ to a place where everything is different. New technologies, the global economic crisis and changing shopping habits have fuelled this journey. Omni-channel, for years a fashionable buzzword, is now manifesting in a way that is far more ambitious than how it was originally conceived in 2003 to describe the convergence of physical and online retailing.

In this new retailing wonderland, customers drive everything – the channels and devices through which products are sold, which products to sell, how the supply chain is configured and post-sale services. A recent report from PAC called “Omni-channel Retail in Europe” found that “85% of European retailers stated that their omni-channel retail strategy is in place because customers are demanding it, while 89% said that their omni-channel initiatives are being driven by a need to improve the customer experience.”

Today retailers’ websites serve not only as shopping hubs but also marketing tools. Although many consumers start their journeys through social channels, the website is the destination – not just for buying, but also for inspiration, as Google explains it its “Trends in I-Need-Some-Ideas Moments” report. Content marketing teams populate websites with resources like DIY-videos or run seasonal campaigns around holidays, back-to-school and Black Friday.

Meeting the demands of the customer

According to PAC, retailers’ greatest threat is not always competition: “perhaps the biggest battle facing European retailers is to meet the increasingly high level of expectation of their customers”. A big part of meeting customers’ expectations is having a website that’s fast, up-to-date and offers different types of content.

You wouldn’t throw a big party, and then offer no food, bad music and obnoxious guests. By the same token, you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) launch campaigns and enrich your social media channel to attract the masses to your website without preparing your site to fight against disappointing slowdowns or timeouts. Any retailer that normally gets a stable and moderate amount of traffic will experience unprecedented traffic levels when they launch a unique, extremely popular campaign or when a video hosted on their site goes viral. You should be prepared for anything.

External events can also cause website traffic spikes. High street fashion retailer Reiss’s website crashed for two and half hours after ‘Kate and Wills’ met with the Obamas in May 2011. Why? A massive buzz ensued on social media after fashion editors reported that the Duchess was wearing a Reiss dress, which drove the unprecedented traffic levels that took down the retailer’s website at the worst possible time.

The sobering truth is that web performance is priceless as it only does take a split second to lose a customer. Today increasingly impatient visitors penalise slow websites by leaving, some of whom never return. Ten years ago, Amazon discovered during A/B tests that every 100ms of latency cost them one percent in sales. If anything people have become more impatient over the last 10 years, therefore companies whose websites are just slightly faster will gain an advantage.

Using intelligent caching

Many factors contribute to web traffic spikes

Many factors contribute to web traffic spikes

Deploying the right technology ensures that website visitors don’t wind up angry or defecting to a competitor. Fortunately retail sites don’t have to invest heavily in scaling their server farm to deal with the spikes, only to have loads of extra expensive capacity during normal periods. “Softer” options are available that are easier to manage, less expensive, more agile and even more eco-friendly. Popular websites like Vimeo and Nikon, which have high bandwidth requirements and experience massive, event-driven spikes, all use a new class of software in their web architecture to improve performance.

Web caching is the central software piece to ensure high performance delivery during major traffic peaks. Web cache solutions offer a way to serve up web content rapidly and update content in real time. A cache works just like an ordinary web server in that it intercepts all web requests before they reach the company’s web server. That means the company server doesn’t have to reproduce multiple impressions of the same page and the next user can view the page without experiencing a delay. By doing so, it is able to serve up to tens of thousands of consecutive requests per second, speeding up website performance, reducing server load – helping to cope with those peaks around campaigns. To the end user, the perceived performance can be improved by up to 1,000 percent.

So instead of investing in cost-intensive hardware to avoid a website performance nightmare, retailers that want a future-proof website able to cope with traffic peaks should turn to web caching solutions. In its report ‘Using IT initiatives to save money and reinforce green credentials,’ Quocirca stated: “Providing a fast, responsive website to users should not be an arduous and expensive task. Rather than focusing on how best to build a hardware platform, or how to tune that platform and the website software to better perform, looking at intelligent and effective caching will deliver greater dividends to the business in more ways than one”.

Don’t forget mobile… 

ComScore recently revealed that internet use on mobile devices exceeded the desktop for the first time in 2014. Mobile web traffic was nearly double that of desktop during the peak holiday shopping period. Consumers expect their mobile experiences to be better than or equal to their desktop ones – and this becomes truer with every new generation of shopper. This means that apart from website performance, retailers must take steps to ensure responsiveness including:

  • Optimise the website for mobile: can consumers see what they want and easily get information? Is the search function easy to use? Is the site easy to navigate? Mobile device detection can help ensure that visitors have the best experience possible. Other technologies such as TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) acceleration ensures better throughput and help to speed up the mobile experience.
  • Optimise website for purchases: If a consumer is ready to buy, has gone through the whole purchasing journey and encounters trouble at the end, they are not likely to try again. According to the Bayard Institute, seven out of 10 people abandon shopping carts online even when they don’t encounter hiccoughs during payment.

In retailing wonderland, successful online campaigns are about so much more than offering discounts. Taking shortcuts and not fully vetting technical solutions behind a website risks damaging your brand and alienating customers forever. Fortunately on this side of the looking glass retailers have all the modern tools at their disposal to prevent this from happening.

(A Retail Times’ sponsored article)