As Mobile Shopping Surges, Response Times Suffer

Holiday retail sales were strong on the holiday kickoff weekend, but as mobile traffic surged on Cyber Monday, mobile sites and apps slowed down. It appears that while retail sites were prepared for the traffic, many retailers failed to test mobile services vigorously.

Jason Verge

November 28, 2012

5 Min Read
As Mobile Shopping Surges, Response Times Suffer


Holiday retail sales were strong on Cyber Monday, and major web sites managed the crush of traffic with few major outages. But the weekend’s big trend – shoppers shifting to mobile devices instead of desktops – highlighted an emerging infrastructure challenge. As mobile traffic surged on Cyber Monday, mobile sites and apps slowed down. It appears that while retail sites were prepared for the traffic, many retailers failed to test mobile services vigorously.

Mobile and website cloud testing and monitoring company Keynote reported significant performance degradation for many mobile sites and apps. Keynote measured significant slowdowns that began Sunday (Nov. 25) and only got worse on Cyber Monday. The performance issues may not have been caused by retailers' infrastructure, however. A second monitoring service, Compuware APM, attributed most of the performance issues it saw to third party content providers, services such as analytics, ads, and help-desk services.

While there were no major outages this year, the accelerating shift to mobile provides an opportunity for e-commerce providers to sharpen their focus on performance. Additionally, this year's results suggest that retailers may need to pay more attention to the third-party services they use and their impact on response time.

Keynote : Mobile Performance Didn’t Meet Customer Expectations

Mobile and website cloud testing & monitoring company Keynote had some interesting findings. The Keynote Mobile Commerce index tracks speed and reliability of 30 leading U.S. mobile retail sites from the perspective on mobile end users across the U.S. The index has been stressed since Black Friday.

“The mobile retail sites on Keynote’s index were not especially impacted by the crush of visitors,” says Aaron Rudger, mobile & web performance manager at Keynote, “However, availability is much different than speed.”

The average page load time for a mobile retail site on the Keynote Mobile Commerce Index slowed significantly to 18 seconds on Cyber Monday, roughly twice as slow as normal.

“This is quite detrimental and will certainly impact a customer's experience negatively and can easily motivate a shopper to abandon a site altogether or go to a competitor’s mobile shopping site,” said Rudger, who attributes the problems to a lack of preparations, “It appears many leading retailers have failed to do the rigorous testing mobile sites require in order to accommodate increasing numbers of mobile holiday shoppers each year.

"Retailers put significant revenue at risk by not doing the requisite amount of mobile testing and mobile load testing to succeed and deliver an optimal experience during the holidays," he said. "The amount of holiday shopping now taking place on smartphones has simply grown too large for retailers to ignore. Simply put, retailers ignore the mobile experience at their own peril.”

Keynote's desktop retail indices show that most sites performed well. The average total load time for retail sites tracked by Keynote was 2.77 second, while the time to "first paint" - the point in which a new user perceives content in the browser - clocked in at 789 milliseconds. The recommended tolerance for a desktop site visit is three seconds, and most e-commerce sites were successful in this regard. However, Keynote believes retailers across the board should improve their initial impression with first-time customers, as 250 milliseconds to first paint is the recommended best practice.

The company lists a few retailers that face performance issues. Foot Locker’s site appeared to struggle with internal server errors on Black Friday between 8:05 a.m. and 8:40 a.m.Pacific Time. While the homepage might have worked, transactions during this time could not be successfully completed. This leads into the second issue that Compuware also saw during the day.

Third-party Services Hurt Performance

There was no single major outage that sent people into a Twitter rage this year, according to application performance management provider Compuware APM. “One of the things we’re finding is that it is, a much quieter year in a traditional sense," said Stephen Pierzchala, Technology Strategist for Compuware APM. "Not a lot of outages, not a lot of issues from a performance perspective.”

The big issue this year was performance problems arising from 3rd party services such as analytics, ads, and help-desk services designed to support visitors. “These sites might have not been as prepared,” said Pierzchala, who said he believes that "third parties don’t load test the volume for the amount of traffic that all of their customers have on their busiest day.”

The company did note the shift to mobile this year. While Cyber Monday was desktop and laptop oriented, there was an unprecedented surge in mobile device usage on Thanksgiving. “The shopping window is definitely shifting back, occurring earlier and earlier each year, but companies seem to be really prepared, said Pierzchala. "The message of mobile is starting to get through to many sites. Most of the retail sites have tablet and/or mobile sites."

There was lots of growth in terms of tablet usage. Significantly, CompuWare found that it involved purchases, not just people browsing. "These are devices of convenience," says Pierzchala, "If there was a deal, people would buy it right there. It’s a reality now."

Compuware saw only one major online retailer had an outage (from 11:30 p.m. to 1:40 a.m. EST on Black Friday) prompted by a timeout issue with their shopping cart.

How Much Traffic Was It?

Content delivery network Akamai saw record peaks compared to past years. Payment processor Chase saw a significant shift and growth to e-commerce for its processed transactions. Compuware APM saw an increase in couch commerce, with tablet adoption fueling the growth, and a desktop and laptop-oriented record Cyber Monday. Keynote saw record traffic, with mobile performance significantly worse than desktop.

While overall, the load was handled very well this year with no major outages to report, the story this year is the surge in mobile usage, and the complications this brings in terms of performance. It has become a reality: people are using smartphones and tablets for much more than browsing. Going forward, retailers need to adjust their plans, their infrastructure, and their partnerships to the mobile experience.

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