Improving e-Commerce Performance: What Works, What Doesn’t

In Commentary by Jonathan Silverstein

According to a new study by Retail Systems Research (RSR) and sponsored by Yottaa, as eCommerce sites strive to meet consumer expectations, retailers find they must add more features and content to deliver rich and engaging online experiences. Consumers increasingly expect personalization, easy chat, real-time inventory updates, rich images, and more, and they expect those capabilities to be delivered in a fast and flawless experience across desktop and mobile.

While rich images and real-time responsiveness are critical, says the report, they significantly degrade web page load times resulting in inconsistent shopper experience and increased bounce rates. As a result, consumers’ patience for retailers’ technology challenges is at an all-time low, and will only get lower.

In its research, RSR asks:

  • Are retailers managing the competing priorities of e-commerce performance well?
  • Do they have the strategies in place to deliver rich, impactful online experiences that are also fast and convenient?
  • What do they need to do to keep up with these consumer demands?

RSR began with a list of 80 retailers derived from the Internet Retailer Top 500 list. We then evaluated the website performance of these brands’ across multiple criteria.

What Worked for e-Commerce Performance

Retailers Are Building Rich Online Experiences for Both Desktop and Mobile

The retailers we evaluated average 70 third parties on their sites, with few appreciable differences between desktop and mobile. The mobile experience overall scored 1.9 out of 3 points for parity to desktop, where only 1-2 high-value capabilities (like chat or social embeds) were missing. On average, 55% of site content is images, suggesting that retailers don’t understand that they are actually sacrificing shopper experience due to the impact slow loading images have on performance.

Mobile Websites Are Increasingly Usable for Actual Shopping

Not long ago most mobile websites were slow-loading and difficult to navigate, and it was very difficult to do much more than locate the nearest store. The authors were genuinely impressed by how many retailers have put forth excellent, feature-rich mobile friendly sites. Mobile is still behind desktop as a channel in terms of conversion rate, but more and more retailers report that a majority of their traffic comes from mobile.

The Apparel and Accessories Category Is Leaps and Bounds Ahead

Today, shoppers should expect a visually striking user experience from fashion retailers, but the analysts were surprised to see just how much better today’s apparel and accessories retailers are than their peers at delivering on this expectation.

What Didn’t Work

Site Performance Is Disturbingly Slow

The rule of thumb for site performance is if it takes more than 3 seconds to load, retailers risk customers bouncing off their sites due to slow site performance. Response times for both desktop and mobile were too slow in the study. even mobile (which appears to be more optimized than desktop) averages almost 9.5 seconds to complete the page (well over the 3 second rule of thumb) and desktop time to complete is even worse at 16.6 seconds.

Third Parties Have a Big Impact on Retailers’ Overall Performance

With an average score of 0.8 out of a possible 3, most retailers are hitting 50-75% of load time coming from third parties. Retailers with more than 70 third parties overall averaged worse performance than those with less than 70 third parties.

Pages with 50%+ Image Content Experienced the Slowest Performance

While there are a few exceptions to this rule, the fact remains there is still a strong correlation between graphic content and page times. For example, no retailer scored as high as possible (3 out of 3) for time to first byte on either mobile or desktop.

Popups Are Too Often a Problem

While it is clearly advantageous for a retailer to collect as many customer email addresses as possible, too many currently take a tack that negatively impacts performance: (the page paints, then the pop up is displayed), while also annoying customers.

Each of these sites leans heavily on graphic content, but what good is beautiful art if it cannot load, says the report.

From a e-commerce performance testing perspective, some retailers could not be benchmarked for either desktop or mobile, and some could not be evaluated for desktop only. The testing methodology utilized When a test failed, we re-ran it three additional times. Only after a total of four tests did we stop and determine that there was something with the website itself that was

What’s Next in e-Commerce Performance?

A Grade of “D+” Leaves Lots of Opportunity on the Table

While we applaud our winners, out of a possible 86 points, 59.5 points should not be enough to take top honors. In any school, that comes out to a high D at 69%. Retailers are still leaving a lot on the table when it comes to site performance, features, and shopability, concludes the report.

The following are recommendations based on what was discovered during this research:

  • Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained… But Nothing Ventured
  • Shop Your Own Sites!
  • Don’t Neglect Desktop While Optimizing Mobile

Through this research it became abundantly clear that many retailers offer a modern and fresh-feeling mobile site, while their desktop offerings have clearly been left behind. This is a mistake, says the report. Desktop still out-performs relative to mobile when it comes to conversion rate, so it is imperative that retailers keep the desktop experience up-to-date.

The Opportunity Ahead

Concluding, the report says that much of the internal debate over rich experience vs. fast performance has focused on either cramming more and more capabilities into sites, no matter what impact that has on performance, or stripping out functions and features in order to make sure the site loads fast. In today’s competitive market, retailers cannot afford to make these trade-offs. There is room to improve performance and, by doing so, open up new opportunities to make digital channels truly differentiating and engaging at the same time.

About the author

Jack Loechner is the Editor of The Center for Media Research’s daily Research Brief. You can reach him at

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