Mobile Web Performance Erratic At Best: Nordstrom, QVC Good; Levi, REI Bad

Just how out-of-control does mobile commerce get when you're creating M-Commerce sites for different smartphones on different carriers? Pretty wild, according to the numbers from a new survey of retail M-Commerce sites by Web-metrics company Gomez. The best sites (Petco, QVC, Nordstrom) perform consistently well; the worst (Levi Strauss, REI, American Eagle Outfitters) always have mediocre availability. But in between, it's chaotic: Content that shows up in seconds on one phone can take half a minute on another, and a site that's 99 percent available on one carrier can drop to 89 percent on a different one.

Tuning E-Commerce site performance for multiple browsers is an old problem, of course. But programming is just the beginning of the mobile performance problem. It also depends on smartphone hardware, which varies widely in horsepower, and mobile carriers, whose performance can change dramatically if a user moves literally just a few feet away. That makes the puzzle hugely more complex--at a time when retailers can't afford to avoid that complexity.

To compile the new benchmarks, Gomez ran tests on 70 M-Commerce sites using the most popular smartphone for each U.S. carrier: the Apple iPhone for AT&T, the Motorola Droid on Verizon, the HTC Hero on Sprint and the HTC Dream on T-Mobile.

The results are disheartening, at least if you're trying to keep smartphone-wielding customers happy. Average response time for most sites was about 5 seconds for the AT&T iPhone and Sprint HTC Hero, 7 seconds for the Verizon Droid and a whopping 14 seconds for the T-Mobile HTC Dream, which took up to 35 seconds for the slowest site in the survey, Best Buy. (How bad is that? In Gomez's latest survey of users, almost a third said they would abandon a site that took more than 5 seconds to load.)

And it's not as simple as AT&T-fast-T-Mobile-slow. Case in point: Moosejaw Mountaineering. The $35 million outdoor apparel and sporting goods retailer's Web site has the second-worst response time on the AT&T iPhone (only Overstock.com is slower). But on the Verizon Droid, Moosejaw's site responds almost twice as fast, and shows up in the top 20. On the other hand, Polo Ralph Lauren's site responds twice as fast on AT&T as it does on Verizon.Other issues are even trickier. For example, Levi Strauss has a corporate site at levistrauss.com and an E-tail site at levi.com. Navigate to the first one on a smartphone and your screen will fill--slowly--with a montage of dozens of small images on a page that's clearly designed for a PC screen. But go to the second one, and the screen comes up much faster with a reasonably designed mobile site.

We know this is what happens because we tried it on an iPhone, where an initial search for the Levi's site led us to levistrauss.com. For customers who don't already know the address of the site they're trying to get to, the wrong site could be worse than useless; it could convince the customer to abandon the retailer's site.

Slow or wildly inconsistent response times are a problem when customers are using their phones to shop at home or work. But it's a catastrophe when, as they're increasingly doing, shoppers bring along their phones to use as a decision-making tool.

Say a customer is facing a row of TVs. Chances are, that customer has already eliminated some by doing research on the Web or mobile sites in advance. But in the store, it may still come down to a handful of choices. And store personnel will never be as trusted as non-employee reviewers.

So out comes the smartphone. The initial advantage goes to the store the customer is standing in; that retailer's site is the likely place to find product information and customer reviews for each of the models that are for sale in this store.

But if that information isn't available--or the customer can't get to the retailer's M-Commerce site or it takes too long to load--the customer may decide to search for reviews. That could take the customer to a third-party site or even to a direct competitor.

That's right. The smartphone can bring your competitor into your store, and maybe even take away the sale.

Suppose you decide you don't want to offer your competition the opportunity to disrupt your sale, so you make it hard for smartphones to get a connection--either Wi-Fi or 3G--inside your store. What then? Lots of customers will step outside to look for a connection. That's even more disruptive to your sales process. And once a customer steps outside, that customer may just keep walking.

So you have to support this opportunity for the competition. And when you do, you're competing against both your direct competitors and third-party review-and-comment sites, some of which may include negative comments about you as a retailer.

That's the change that sneaked up on retailers in the midst of the smartphone explosion. In the space of a few years, your brick-and-mortar store has changed from a haven from competition--once the customers were in the store, you controlled their experience--to a place where customers have much more control over the experience and retailers have much less.

This is the world you have to support now. The merged channel is no longer something you can think about doing someday. Your customers have already moved there. Until you catch up, they're beyond your control.

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