Shopping Site Slowdowns Persist Leading Into Holiday Crush

With preparations for the 2005 holiday season well underway, many analysts are predicting another banner year for e-commerce. Strong growth has become routine for the online sales industry.

But some 10 years after e-commerce began to get noticed and several holiday seasons after nudging its way into the mainstream, even major e-commerce sites still experience occasional slowdowns and interruptions in service.

Often, the slowdowns are temporary and may manifest themselves in the form of a slower-than-normal page load or a sale taking longer than usual to complete. Some shoppers may not give them a second thought. But in the age of high-speed connections and myriad choices for where to shop, any slowdown could represent a competitive disadvantage.

So, why are e-commerce companies still seeing such slowdowns? Roopak Patel, senior Internet analyst at Keynote Systems, which monitors Web traffic and performance of many major sites, said it’s a reflection of the complexity of how such sites are constructed.

“The e-business engine is a continuously running engine,” Patel told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s hard to keep a consistent level of performance being delivered unless you have a pretty comprehensive preparedness for what could go wrong. As always, it starts with proper planning.”

No Excuses

With hardware costs going down, it’s unlikely that sites that see slowdowns aren’t investing enough in servers or storage or bandwidth, Patel added. Instead, the fact that on any given day, a dozen or more stakeholders have “their hands in the cookie jar” is likely to blame. If a link is changed by the marketing department, or router setting tweaked by the IT department, for instance, and those changes aren’t accounted for elsewhere, it can create havoc on a site.

Patel advises companies to decide what base line of service they want to provide and then set up systems to monitor performance from an end-user’s perspective. Then, have a plan in place to react quickly when performance deviates from the accepted levels.

What those parameters are would likely vary from site to site. “If someone wants a page to load in four seconds, they should be aware as soon as that time spikes to 12 seconds — anything that deviates from the norm should be a call to action,” he said.

Many companies are turning to outsourcing all of their Web traffic handling to address the issues. Eastern Mountain Sports, for instance, recently tapped Mirror Image to handle its e-commerce site performance, including handling traffic spikes that occur when e-mail marketing campaigns are put into place, which sometimes boost traffic to the company’s retail site by 400 percent in a single day.

“Our customers benefit from faster page loads, while our company benefits from a more cost-effective method of handling heavy traffic,” said Rory Steer, Director of Information Technology at EMS.

EMS said it saw a 40 percent boost in site performance after linking with Mirror Image.

Plenty of Pipeline

Lisa Arthur, chief marketing officer at Akamai Technologies, said the Internet in general has shown its ability to handle massive events.

From the Super Bowl, when millions of Internet users converged on advertisers’ sites and this summer’s Live 8 concert, during which the Internet was the preferred delivery vehicle of data-intensive video and audio feeds for many around the world, such events show that the capacity exists to handle even huge surges of traffic with little or no noticeable slowdowns.

“The average consumer definitely has higher expectations today about the experience they will get online and especially at retailers’ sites,” Forrester Research analyst Carrie Johnson told the E-Commerce Times. “While they once tolerated sites being down or pages loading slowly as coming with the territory of the Web, they are now much more likely to view it as poor customer service.”

In other words, the stakes are high, which is why many online retailers have been working on preparing for the extra traffic of this holiday season since the last one ended, Johnson noted.

“People are becoming less patient with any sort of performance that’s not acceptable to them,” Patel added. “If they don’t get that level of experience they have come to expect, they are likely to go somewhere else.”

Fortunately, e-tailers have a chance to save face. Because many customers are registered or store payment information on their site, they’re less likely to storm off in anger and head to a competitor’s site. Patel added: “They have a vested interest, but they will only put up with so much.”

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