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The very real problem facing British retailers that nobody is talking about

This is a copy of an article I wrote for SH/FT, the original is no longer online.

Blank retail storefront

Imagine this was the storefront of an open store – no branding, no window dressing, nobody greeting customers. Imagine the negative impression it would have. Visitors would be wondering whether it’s even open and would simply walk straight past.

This is the physical manifestation of a slow website: the white screen while visitors wait.

It goes without saying that everyone hates slow websites – I’m sure nobody needs convincing on that front – but billions of pounds in revenue is being lost by those who fail to prioritise web performance.

Boardrooms shouldn’t just focus on weekly financial targets, but on how much revenue they left on the table, and build speed targets into their weekly board-level metrics.

The cost of a slow website

It's been ten years since Amazon discovered a “1% decrease in revenue for every 100ms increase in load time”, and the scale of the problem has only become clearer since then.

Google’s latest research shows that web users rank the importance of website speed over anything else for user experience – even the ease of finding what they want!

Google's insight into the demands of web users.

For those taking this advice on board, the results speak for themselves.

SHIFT Magazine's insight into performance, using data from Ericsson, Etsy, Mobify, Shopzilla, Pinterest, Zalando and Missguided.

These are all metrics that retailers track and analyse, but without clear visibility of web performance, low-hanging fruit for optimisation can be missed and fluctuations can be misattributed.

Leader of the pack

With this in mind, SHIFT set out to study 44 of the largest fashion retailers in the UK. After running multiple tests per day, over a seven-day period, it became clear that only a small minority of companies recognise web performance as a core part of their business strategy – the rest simply aren’t taking it seriously.

One retailer that does see the importance is Schuh – as well as being a high-flyer in our recent RES report, Schuh’s website consistently loaded the fastest, and the comparison to the competition is stark. The below image illustrates how bad things really are for the industry: at the point Schuh’s website has completely loaded, 25 of the 44 retailers hadn’t even shown any signs of getting started, leaving the visitor to wonder if the website was offline:

Mobile performance of 44 retailers.

What’s more, 20 of these retailers didn’t render anything whatsoever within three seconds, even on a 4G connection – a startling figure given Google found that 53% of customers on mobile devices will leave if a page takes over three seconds to load.

Schuh’s success in this test is far from lucky. Stuart McMillan, deputy head of ecommerce at the business, has continuously pushed a performance-first approach fed by careful research. “It’s clear in our data: the slower someone’s session, the higher the bounce rate,” he tells SHIFT Magazine. “It’s not a vanity project; it’s about an experience that removes barriers to purchase.”

Meanwhile, third-placed Matalan’s director of ecommerce, Paul Hornby, speaks of the company’s constant focus on increasing convenience of both online and offline channels by valuing the importance of ecommerce’s role in “joining the two worlds”.

He continues: “If the website fails to deliver a fast and slick experience for the customer, this crucial link is undermined and the customer suffers. The ecommerce team here is always pushing to deliver the next breakthrough in customer experience online.”

It’s clear that these retailers use the very best practices to keep on top – and for underperforming rivals, a culture change is absolutely necessary if they’re to match these pioneers of performance.

To do so, three huge factors need to be considered.

Prioritising performance: putting it at the forefront of your strategy

1. Raise awareness

The first step to addressing any problem is recognising you have one.

If you’re not one of the best performing retailers above, Google has published a free tool that allows you to see how much revenue your site is losing from traffic you’ve already paid for.

The web performance calculator from Google.

Understanding the size of this prize, then adding a rigorous speed metric to your weekly board-level reporting, is essential. SHIFT’s performance ambassador Harry Roberts, who has worked with the likes of the BBC, NHS, UN, Financial Times, and Google, often finds in his consultancy work that prioritisation of the issue is regularly misconstrued by people at the top.

“I often find that senior and non-technical stakeholders believe performance to be a technical problem,” he explains. “It isn’t. It’s strategic, and needs business-level support and backing for it to be successful.”

For Schuh, it’s a regular talking point at every level. “We have a main ecommerce report that goes out to all key stakeholders in the business every week,” McMillan adds. “One page is on the technical performance of the site.”

It’s more important than ever to get the whole organisation pulling in the same direction. Businesses must give the ecommerce team a metric with which to safeguard against short-term decision-making that could have a negative impact on website performance.

With web performance in retail, teamwork makes the dream work.

2. Robust measurement

Performance is as much about perception as it is reality; capturing how a website ‘feels’ to customers as it loads is tricky to measure at scale, and not all speed metrics are created equal.

‘Page load time’ often gets thrown around as a metric that sounds simple to understand, but in reality it means something different to everyone.

So, which metrics should we be analysing?

  • Start Render – when is it first apparent that the website has started to load and it’s not offline or broken?
  • SpeedIndex – how fast does the site load over time – does it load nothing meaningful then everything at once, or does it load more progressively, giving the customer something useful quickly, then enhancing from there?
  • First Meaningful Paint – when does the site first show something meaningful?
  • Hero Paint Time – how quickly does the most important element of a page appear?
  • Time-to-Interactive – when can the visitor start interacting with the website; scrolling, navigating, etc?

Individually, none of these metrics are silver bullets, but combining them together presents a clear picture of how a website loads.

It’s not enough just to consider what metrics we measure, though – we need to consider the environment in which we’re measuring them.

You need to understand your customer base, what devices they use, the kind of connectivity they are accustomed to, and even geographically where they are, as best you can – they’re all uncontrollable, but trackable, factors that impact performance.

“76% of our traffic comes from smartphones,” McMillan continues. “The trend has been clear for years. Site speed is of paramount importance on mobile; what use is amazing content if people get annoyed before they see it?”

Hornby agrees: “Mobile plays a huge part in that experience and so speed, especially over mobile networks, is a large part of our focus.”

Schuh prioritises mobile performance.

Testing website performance on a powerful desktop computer over a fibre connection at the office is not going to be a real-world test – a budget Android phone on flaky 3G may be more realistic.

These metrics can be analysed across a variety of different devices and connection strengths using a tool such as SpeedCurve (paid) or WebPageTest (free) – the best implementations will be RUM (Real User Monitoring), but even running some synthetic tests is a good start.

3. Continuous improvement

If you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards.

McMillan and his team certainly won’t be victims of arrogance regarding their table-topping performance right now. He explains: “We do love a league table at Schuh, and if we saw we were slower than some of our competitors, we’d be driven to improve.”

This is, without a doubt, the best attitude to have. Building regular performance improvements into your release schedule is vital. Without continuous advancement, you’ll always lag behind the competition.

The good news for traditional omnichannel retailers is that our analysis showed how plenty of pure-play retailers are not focused enough on performance either, meaning there’s a real chance to outperform them in this hugely critical area – but just remember, a lot of businesses are already targeting them – and they’ll compete with you as soon as you pose a threat to performance competition.

As Schuh’s McMillan concludes: “We’re usually always looking for the next win. And there is always a next win to be had!”

Photo of Ryan

Hi, I'm Ryan.

I have been working with the web for over 15 years, and I'm Co-Founder & CTO of Shift Commerce, a SaaS ecommerce platform for ambitious retailers.

Running a conference? I'd love to speak — see my speaking page for more.