5 E-Commerce Must-Haves in 2013
November 11, 2013
Mark Eshelby
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With the holidays rapidly approaching, the top goal of many online retailers and e-commerce companies is delivering superior online experiences that drive conversions. This should come as no surprise, with eMarketer predicting United States e-commerce revenues to increase about 15.1 percent year-over-year during the prime holiday shopping months of November and December.

Clearly, organizations want to seize and maximize this revenue opportunity. Below are what Compuware believes to be the top five must-have e-commerce features that can help you grow your business this holiday season.

1. Mobile Optimization

Driven largely by tablets, mobile commerce, or m-commerce, stands to gain a larger share of US e-commerce sales this year. According to eMarketer, m-commerce will account for nearly 16 percent, or $41.68 billion, of the $262.30 billion that US online shoppers are expected to spend this year.

Given this dramatic growth, online retailers and e-commerce companies must deliver the same performance excellence on tablets and smartphones as they do on traditional PC websites. In fact, today's mobile users expect even better performance on mobile devices, as the assumption is that mobile web and native mobile apps are optimized for these devices. Mobile is often the first interaction with a potential customer, even if that customer uses their device just to browse and compare, but ultimately ends up making the actual purchase in a physical store. The experience has got to be perfect.

Fortunately, a new generation of application performance management (APM) solutions can give organizations a bird's eye view into real user performance under high and peak loads, across a broad range of mobile devices. Going a step further, industry benchmarks can then be used to show companies how their mobile performance compares to that of industry leaders.

2. Seamless Transactions

Online retailers and e-commerce companies must optimize the speed and reliability of business-critical transactions like check-out, especially during times of peak load. Testing a complete end-to-end check-out process requires "gluing together" a number of disparate processes and third-party providers (like shopping carts) into a single seamless transaction, known as the "conversion funnel". Testing the full conversion funnel, or the complete web application delivery chain, can present challenges as end-to-end use cases can be difficult to test with standard tools.

The reason for this is that traditional load testing tools were designed to test static HTML pages. But today, websites and applications are rich composites of features and functionalities derived from multiple sources. For example, a typical North American website has somewhere between 9 and 13 third-party web services contributing to a typical web transaction, which makes traditional approaches based on testing individual pages obsolete.

Online retailers and e-commerce companies need an approach to performance and web load testing that actually tests the system as users will experience it. So before an organization does any testing, they need to understand what to test. Besides the homepage, there might be additional landing pages for timely promotions as well as special pages for mobile optimized web applications. From these landing pages, organizations need to find the key actions a visitor walks through to complete a purchase. Only by testing these processes in full can an organization determine exactly where conversion-killing slowdowns may be occurring.

In addition to testing conversion scenarios, organizations should test the preliminary actions that often lead to a conversion process (even if not directly involved), such as browsing the product catalog, store locator or call center contact pages.

3. Product Page Excellence

Online retailers and e-commerce companies must strive to offer the richest, best-in-class product detail pages possible. Increasingly, this will mean leveraging third-party services like product tours, product demos and even video. According to Compuware, there are nearly 1,500 distinct third-party services available worldwide.

But organizations must avoid compromising speed for functionality. Industry statistics show that the abandonment rate on e-commerce sites increases by eight percent for every additional two seconds of page load time – no matter how functional a website may be. Third-party services may add to the feature-richness of a website, but a performance degradation for any single service can bring down performance for an entire web page or web application. Compuware data reveals that ad servers and social media plug-ins tend to be the biggest culprit for outages, while online security services and ad verification experience the fewest number.

Furthermore, Compuware's analysis of last year's holiday season showed that content delivery networks (i.e. missing, slow or misconfigured CDNs), problematic third-party components (i.e. failing service calls or blocking JavaScript) and problems with specific devices (i.e. mobile, tablets, older desktop browsers, etc.) are major contributors to page load time and user satisfaction. Remember, third-party services serve numerous customers and during peak traffic times for the overall Internet, chances are their traffic is heavy too.

In order to avoid these problems, it is important for organizations to include the components that are outside their own firewalls in their testing, as well as test from real user devices. Reinforcing the previous point, traditional tools that test static HTML pages only leave huge blind spots where performance is concerned.

Testing all the components that make up a feature-rich website or application provides necessary proof and helps all parties, including third-party vendors, to better understand opportunities for optimization. It can also help online retailers and e-commerce companies validate third-party service-level agreements (SLAs) and ensure their chosen providers are equally prepared for peak traffic. To get a sense of how a third-party service provider may be impacting a site's overall performance under load, it can be helpful to compare the site's speed and availability before the third-party service is added, to afterwards.

4. As Much Free Shipping As You Can Afford

Upgrading delivery options or offering free delivery is another approach for pushing customers over the finish line and driving conversions. But multiple changes to delivery options will likely increase the need and frequency for web performance and load testing, to make sure an application continues to function well during and after changes.

Performance tools need to support dynamically changing environments and accurately test and measure performance without complex, time-consuming scripting. By being able to save test scripts, organizations can carry out new performance and web load tests quickly and more efficiently, in line with the pace of application change.

5. Ongoing 24x7x365 Data Showing When Your Site Performance is Less than Superior

The rise in mobile web browsing means that customers are accessing websites and applications all the time. This means no time is good for poor performance. For obvious reasons, organizations devote a lot of time and effort to performance and web load testing in advance of the holidays. But in reality, organizations need performance data on all applications and transactions, all the time. Major service outages are unpredictable and do not occur just around the holidays. In this day and age of social media, all that's needed is one disgruntled customer venting on Facebook or Twitter to wreak major havoc on brand and revenues.

In addition to monitoring all applications 24x7, it's important for organizations to focus on performance throughout the entire application lifecycle, not just the production phase. Application performance monitoring should not be considered just a step at the end of development, but part of a continuous feedback loop. This can help eliminate many defects before they even have a chance to hit the system. A shared framework rooted in performance facilitates rapid communication among developers, testers and QA professionals as they bring software products to market.

However, even with extensive preparation things do break down, so collaboration must also extend to operations teams, an approach known as DevOps. A new generation of APM enables this type of collaboration, or "agile triage", helping to minimize time to repair and increase responsiveness when it's needed most. Ultimately, this drives optimal customer experiences and bottom-line benefits.

Some online retailers and e-commerce companies are even taking the approach of looking for occasions when a customer experience may not be up to standards, and then proactively refunding customers. These organizations need automated systems that can detect round-the-clock when performance falls below pre-defined thresholds. This is the key to enabling this value-add feature, and the larger goal of finding and fixing performance problems before customers do.

Conclusion

Features such as those listed above can help online retailers and e-commerce companies stand out this holiday season. Performance data reflecting the true user experience is the key to realizing the full benefits from all of them, and performance and web load testing from the user perspective should continue to play a big role in holiday preparations. By proactively verifying performance, scalability and robustness of online properties to ensure high conversion rates, organizations can position themselves to maximize the holiday season with confidence.

Mark Eshelby is Senior Product Manager for Compuware's Application Performance Management (APM) Business Unit.

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