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Are mobile commerce sites ready to handle the holiday traffic surge?

November 22, 2011


Mobile site performance will be key as more consumers shop via mobile during the holidays

Retailers must prepare for the expected surge in mobile traffic during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

An estimated 60 million consumers plan to use their mobile devices to shop over the holiday weekend and 36 percent of these intend to make purchases directly from their handsets, according to recent research from InMobi. However, if retailers’ mobile sites are slow to load or do not provide an easy-to-use shopping experience during this weekend and throughout the holiday shopping season, consumers  may take their shopping activity elsewhere. 

“Performance is definitely critical,” said Nisheeth Mohan, senior product manager for mobile at Keynote Systems, San Mateo, CA. “People want to access content as fast as possible on mobile Web sites.

“Traffic is going to be higher this year,” he said. “Retailers need to make sure their sites are tested for heavy loads.

“Mobile performance has definitely improved compared to last year. What kind of issues we will see on Black Friday is hard to predict because it is not every day that we get so much traffic.”

Perils of poor performance
The holidays are a critical time of year for retailers because this is when many turn their first profits.

In previous holiday seasons, mobile users often had to shop a retailer’s Web site designed for desktop use, which meant the mobile experience was slow and difficult to navigate.

This year, many of the top retailers have launched mobile sites or revamped older sites with new features and functionality.

This will be the first holiday season for many of these sites and some retailers may be caught by surprise in terms of the volume of traffic they receive Thanksgiving weekend.

A slow or non-performing mobile site can mean lost sales with consumers taking their online dollars elsewhere. However, the impact also extends beyond lost holiday sales.

“You have to think about churn,” said Amir Rosenberg, product manager for mobile at Gomez, Lexington, MA. “It is really about losing the long-term account as opposed to losing a couple of bucks on the table at that time.”

Optimized sites
This year, the mobile shopping experience should be a better one than last year for several reasons.

First of all, many retailers have now introduced mobile-optimized sites, which means they are smaller, faster and designed with mobile in mind.

Some of the leading mobile sites from a performance standpoint for the week ending Nov. 20 were Sears,,, Walgreens and Best Buy, according to Keynote’s research.

Another reason performance could be better this year is that carriers have introduced faster networks. Also, the penetration of smartphones has grown significantly.

“Collectively, these should lead to improvements in performance this year,” Mr. Mohan said.

However, every year there are mishaps and this year most likely will not be an exception. For example, retailers such as JCPenney and American Eagle experienced mobile outages last year that cost them business during the critical holiday shopping period.

One reason performance issues do occur in mobile is the complexity of the mobile ecosystem, which means that retailers do not always have control of problems that can arise.

The parties involved in bringing a mobile site to a user include the carrier, any third-party vendors that were used to build and host the site as well as third-party content such as ads. 

“The mobile ecosystem is so complex, there are so many different hand off points that if any one of them breaks, the performance will be impacted,” Mr. Mohan said.

“If AT&T or Verizon has an issue, consumers will be impacted and retailers have no control over this,” he said.

“Some sites also have third-party content such as ads – if these start to perform poorly, then the consumer experience will be impacted.”

Sites need to be optimized from a design perspective so that users can perform what they want to do in the fewest amounts of clicks and the fastest amount of time.

The tasks that mobile users are likely to be interested in completing include finding store locations, getting directions and looking for sales and special offers.

When doing performance testing, it is important to monitor how a mobile site performs in different networks and different locations. Even if a mobile site may perform well in New York City, there may be localized performance issues in other areas of the country.

“Companies realize the importance of Black Friday, which is why more and more companies are starting to do load testing,” Mr. Mohan said.

Tablet effect
Also adding complexity to the situation is the proliferation of smartphone and tablet devices.

Retailers face how to optimize the shopping experience for tablets, which have taken off significantly in the past year and are seeing a lot of use around shopping activities.

“In general, this year there are going to be more devices, with vendors and marketers trying to provide rich experiences for many of them, which increases the need to keep performance in mind,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

“The unique trend this year is the tablet effect,” he said. 

For the iPad, which has the lion’s share of the tablet market, many retailers have created optimized sites just for this device, which means performance is not likely to be impacted.

However, the same is not true for Android tablets.

When an Android tablet loads the smarpthone version of a desktop site, there is relatively poor use of the real estate on tablet, which can lead to less-than-optimal customer experience.

“We seeing a proliferation of Android tablets,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “However, on Android we don’t see unique sites being maintained for tablets.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York

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