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Are retailers driving their customers away?

With online spending predicted to be up by 42% on last Christmas at a staggering £13.8 billion, many retailers will be looking to maximise their revenue during the 2007 festive period.

The industry has stepped up investment in delivery systems to ensure orders arrive on time but have retailers done their homework to make sure websites perform in the run up to Christmas?

With 61% of UK homes connected to the Internet, and an expected increase in online sales of 20% during December, shopping online has never been more popular.

However, with 84% of households now using a broadband connection, consumers have high-speed expectations when it comes to browsing or buying. In fact, research carried out by solutions provider Akamai suggested that a huge 75% of consumers would not tolerate an online wait of more than four seconds before looking elsewhere.

Jonathan Robinson, chief operating officer, NetBenefit comments: “The Christmas holidays are just around the corner, and this means a significantly increased sales opportunity for online retailers. However, bad customer experiences such as snail-like speeds during the purchase are just as likely to turn a potential customer away as a long queue at the check-out counter and can generate a significant amount of longer term damage to the brand.

Robinson recommends a simple checklist to avoid an online shopping disaster this Christmas.

Firstly, retailers need to consider whether websites measure up to the four-second test. Consumers rank slow page loading as the biggest reason for clicking away to a competitor during their shopping experience. Retailers should be asking whether their websites have enough bandwidth to deliver pages fast, no matter what the load during the festive period.

Robinson says, “Speak to your hosting company and find out exactly what your bandwidth limit is and whether you will be penalised for exceeding it. You should also be able to get access to your existing usage statistics. Hosting providers can offer short term burstable bandwidth contracts designed for just such seasonal or sudden peaks in traffic.”

Retailers can spend thousands of pounds on Google advertising and optimisation to drive consumers to their website for this year’s must have gifts but this is wasted if visitors click through to your brand only to find that the website crashes. There is no reason for any ecommerce business to take this risk with online sales. Managed hosting companies can offer help with solutions that will ensure your increased visitor traffic is managed and distributed even at the busiest shopping times to avoid downtime.

Finally once consumers have trawled a website and transferred their gifts into a shopping basket, they want to pay. There are clever techniques available to monitor the quality of service across your entire website. By implementing simple website traffic rules at your checkout you can make sure that all shoppers ready to buy are prioritised, or even allow consumers that are known to be high spenders to be advanced to the front of the queue.

Jonathan Robinson concludes: “Christmas in the UK represents a huge opportunity for retailers but consumers are no less exacting when shopping from the comfort of their home or convenience of their desk. Every minute that your website is slow to load or crashes because of a peak in traffic translates into lost revenue.”

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.