Online sales scaled dizzy new heights over the recent holiday season, thanks to the annual pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, snow hampering high street footfall and a record number of consumers trawling the net for sale bargains as early as Christmas Eve - and even on Christmas Day.
Yet with consumers growing ever more impatient, it's not enough just to have an e-commerce channel. It's critical that retailers’ e-stores are able to perform optimally and deliver a positive customer experience, even when hundreds, if not thousands, of customers are using the site simultaneously. Getting it wrong can result in the loss of substantial amounts of revenue to competitors that are better prepared for peak traffic periods.
MT asked Graham Parsons of Reflective Solutions for his ten top tips on how e-tailers can ensure their website doesn’t leak all-important revenue to competitors.
1. Carry out testing. The only way of knowing how a site will perform in the real world is to put the application through rigorous testing throughout the development phase. This means testing every possible variable and user journey to find out where the bottlenecks are, and then correcting any problems before the site goes live.
2. Test often, test early. Many high profile website failures have occurred because testing was left until the last step before launch. The result? Potentially millions of pounds in lost revenue. Testing regularly at key stages of the development process can save both time and money, enabling any mistakes to be corrected early in the project and ensuring that deadlines are met.
3. Don’t cut corners. Due to the cost and licence structure of some performance testing tools, test managers can be tempted to cut corners by only carrying out partial tests under minimum traffic loads to help stay within budget. This is a risky strategy that can result in significant lost revenues if they get it wrong.
4. Remember: Google ranks your performance. There are two ways your customers will find your website: they will either know you from the past or have found you using a search engine. Google announced last year that they would use website response times in their ranking algorithm. You may offer the same products as your competitors, have lower prices and provide better after-sales service, yet you'll find yourself below your competitors in search results if your website is slower than rival sites.
5. Get expert help. Performance testing is traditionally a specialist skill set and very few companies can afford to have dedicated testing teams on the payroll. But new tools on the market have reduced the amount of consultancy time needed to carry out correct and realistic testing, which means that getting expert help is now much more affordable for smaller companies.
6. Plan for the worst-case scenario. Websites experience widely fluctuating levels of traffic that can be influenced by many factors including: the time of day, day of the week, or as a result of increased visitors following costly advertising and marketing campaigns. When testing the application and specifying the underlying infrastructure, plan for the worst case scenario to ensure that the site will continue to deliver acceptable response times under peak traffic conditions.
7. Don’t assume that because it looks nice it will perform well. It is easy to be bowled over by the creative team’s new look for the website and assume that because it might win a design award it will also perform to acceptable standards. Before a business manager accepts a site into production it is critical to ask some basic but searching questions like how many customers will the site support at any one time? How long will customers have to wait for their search results to display? If the developers cannot answer these questions satisfactorily they are not doing their job correctly.
8. Give your online presence the same level of attention as your high street store. No store manager would dream of opening his doors unless all the aisles were well stocked with goods temptingly presented and, above all, without enough check-outs working to meet demand. The same goes for the online store.
9. Know how your website is performing before customers start to complain. Accepting a website in production should not be the end of the process. Many things can impact the performance of even the most tested e-commerce site during its normal life-cycle. By deploying specialist network and application monitoring tools to continually check the performance of the website from the user perspective, IT managers can pinpoint technical problems before they escalate into a major failure.
10. Select the right tools for the job. There are many performance testing tools available to IT teams which, like all commercial software, require different levels of expertise and investment to get the best ROI. Choose wisely.
Graham Parsons is the CEO of Reflective Solutions