Beauty Killed The Beast -- And Slowed Its Download Speed, Too

The latest batch of test results from Keynote Systems released Tuesday is giving more evidence to those who argue that E-Commerce sites must be simplified, reliable and fast even if it means that they are not as gorgeous.

Consider the clothing retailer that came out as number one in both of Keynote's rankings (for speed and reliability): Zappos, a $600 million shoe merchant, which easily beat out much better funded rivals including JC Penney, Kohl's, Banana Republic and Nordstrom. On the other end of the spectrum, the Gap had a lock on last place in both categories.

A quick look at the sites of Zappos and the Gap shows why. Zappos' homepage uses tiny images and lots of text. It's design is a bit crowded, but it's functional and efficient. The Gap's site's homepage autoplays music over a brightly-colored Flash presentation that autoplays. The Gap site no longer even has a search function, which it apparently removed a few months ago.

The metrics punish and reward appropriately. Zappos just-the-facts approach delivers a reliability (uptime) percentage of 99.87 percent, compared with the Gap's 95.11 percent. The real killer was speed, where Zappos delivered pages in about 3.83 seconds (the fastest in all of the categories Keynote published), compared with the Gap's leisurely 10.24 seconds.

That's not the worst, though. That prize goes to the electronics category's Amazon.com at a "have they crashed again?" speed of 12.02 seconds. Amazon's site outage problems have been known for months.

Keynote considers the site outage problem particularly serious for E-Commerce. "Especially critical is the number of Outage Hours. This indicates that during the hour a significant number of users?from various geographic locations?were unable to complete the measured path such as shopping and adding a product to the cart,? said Ben Rushlo, senior manager, competitive research with Keynote, in a company statement. ?Ideally, a site should have not a single outage during the week and many of the sites do achieve this goal. Other sites, however, consistently struggle to not have at least one major negative event during the week.?

Keynote has modified how it publicly discloses their performance results and now breaks E-Commerce site activity into three categories: Apparel; Books & Music; and Electronics. Of all of the retailers examined in all three categories, three retailers (and only three) were given perfect scores for uptime and it was all in the electronics category: CDW, Circuit City and Staples.

The argument for E-Commerce sites to simplify is hardly new, but the factors forcing retailer's hands is soaring. Even setting aside numbers such as Keynote's?which show a direct connection between design and site performance?and the fact that broadband-enabled consumers have very itchy mouse trigger fingers ("delay just one GIF and I'm outta here, pardner"), E-tailers need look no farther than their cellphone for instructions.

The two hottest segments in retail today are payment issues?primarily contactless and merging loyalty and payment cards--and mobile issues including payment and customization.

The speed, display, keyboard, battery life and other limitations of even the smartest smartphones (PDA phone hybrids) is going to raise serious questions about design issues. The prospect of a customer in a brick-and-mortar whipping out a cellphone to check prices, look at reviews and peek at the inventory and sales of the store a mile away are no longer science fiction.

Most major retail sites today are nothing short of torturous when accessed via a smartphone and a huge percentage of the problem deals with design. Realtime inventory is a problem aside from that, but a practical cellphone version is an essential starting point. And, yes, that torturous comment was based on experiences working with a very fast broadband cell connection looking at the supposedly cellphone-friendly version of major retail sites.

Not to pile on, but legal issues surrounding site accessibility?pity poor Target, whose site is fighting compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act--is another critical reason that sites need to be made much simpler.

For the moment, though, here's the best argument: How must it feel for IT executives at the Gap to be taught a lesson by Zappos? That must really hurt.

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For the record, here is the full list of retail performances released by Keynote. (Also, in chart form for Availability and for Response Time.) In Apparel, the top nine performers for response time were Zappos (3.83 seconds), JC Penney (4.49 seconds), Kohl's (4.87 seconds), Macy's (5.14 seconds), Banana Republic (8.29 seconds), Neiman Marcus (8.89 seconds), Eddie Bauer (9.96 seconds), Nordstrom (9.99 seconds) and the Gap (10.24 seconds). In Apparel, the top nine performers for uptime were Zappos (99.87 percent), JC Penney (99.74 percent), Banana Republic (99.37 percent), Nordstrom (98.39 percent), Macy's (97.99 percent), Eddie Bauer (97.99 percent), Kohl's (97.97 percent), Neiman Marcus (95.16 percent) and the Gap (95.11 percent).

In Books and Music, the top eight performers for response time were Wal-Mart (4.19 seconds), Barnes and Noble (5.71 seconds), Overstock.com (6.04 seconds), Target (8 seconds), Buy.com (9 seconds), Borders (9.91 seconds), Amazon (10.82 seconds) and Tower Records (10.9 seconds). In Books and Music, the top eight performers for uptime were Barnes & Noble (99.87 percent), Wal-Mart (99.83 percent), Target (99.25 percent), Amazon (99.11 percent), Borders (99.11 percent), Overstock.com (97.3 percent), Tower Records (97.2 percent) and Buy.com (96.48 percent).

In Electronics, the top ten performers for response time were Office Depot (3.96 seconds), Staples (3.99 seconds), Wal-Mart (4.14 seconds), Circuit City (4.36 seconds), Best Buy (5.55 seconds), Overstock.com (5.71 seconds), Dell (7.03 seconds), CDW (9.18 seconds), Buy.com (9.86 seconds) and Amazon (12.02 seconds). In Electronics, the top ten performers for uptime were CDW (100 percent), Circuit City (100 percent), Staples (100 percent), Amazon (99.49 percent), Wal-Mart (99.49 percent), Dell (99.36 percent), Overstock.com (99.11 percent), Office Depot (97.86 percent), Buy.com (96.19 percent) and Best Buy (96.07 percent).

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