Online shopping during the 2012 holiday seasons is on target to be the busiest in history. Business is expected to be up 450% more than on an average day, while online retailers could see a 200% gain. Black Friday is expected to be the second-biggest online retail day this year, with sales growing 12% from 2011.

The stakes remain very high for retailers — even a slight disruption or slowdown in performance can translate into millions of dollars in lost revenue. Retailers must be prepared for the challenges related to surging demand, particularly maintaining superior user experience and application response time.

Throughout the holiday season, I will be monitoring and analyzing Web and mobile performance of U.S. retailers, analyzing and commenting on how their sites are performing in a series of video and blog reports beginning on Black Friday (November 23).

Shoppers expect web pages to download in two seconds or less. Web and mobile sites that don’t perform well — are slow to load, have periods of unavailability or have inconsistent performance — negatively affect customers’ experience and reduce the likelihood that they will continue to spend time on the site or make a purchase. A delay of a few seconds can mean millions of dollars in potential revenue lost.

Our data analysis from last year’s holiday season found that many e-commerce sites were not able to meet the performance demands that this critical shopping period presents, even with months of preparation by retailers. Performance results showed that 86% of the top 50 U.S retailers experienced some degradation in website performance when compared with non-holiday baseline levels.

Last year, retailers that adopted a smart approach to performance – one that allowed them to swiftly adjust to the shifting shopping habits of their customers, whether online or via mobile devices – were the retailers that fully benefited from consumers’ willingness to spend more during the holiday season.

Lessons Learned

What had the biggest effect on the top 50 retailers’ page load times during the 2011 holiday season? We found that poor performing sites shared similar problem patterns — overloaded with third-party content, weighted down by JavaScript, and missing critical browser caching configurations. This year, the major performance challenges that online retailers must be prepared to meet include:

Scale or fail: Web sites must scale to meet demand and remain stable under load. Insight into performance must be in real time, and organizations must be able to identify issues immediately to resolve them before sales are lost. Online shoppers expect pages to load in less than two seconds and will abandon a site if pages take longer to render, with even a slight disruption or slowdown translating into millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Understand each customer: It is no longer enough to monitor application performance just from the backend. Today’s online retailers must be able to view and understand their applications from the end-user’s perspective. Without this insight, it is impossible to ensure that customers are having smooth shopping experiences from browsing to final checkout and delivery of products, and track those experiences from the browser-click, through the web- and application-tiers, to the database, and back — for all users, all transactions 24/7.

Proactively manage complex applications: Retail sites are more intricate than ever before. Customer- and partner-facing applications are exploding, applications are becoming increasingly complex, infrastructures are being virtualized, and endpoint diversity, including smart phones and tablets, is growing. Online retailers must have continuous insight into third-party services and business transactions.

To gain this insight, retailers need more than just uptime stats and page views to make informed decisions; they also need to know if all application components are meeting service level targets for each customer, how performance is affecting revenue and how marketing campaigns are affecting usage. After all, it only takes one application failure to destroy overall performance.

If something can go wrong, it will: Regardless of how well prepared online retailers think they are, the fact is that unforeseen things happen. Application errors, database performance, incomplete transactions, slowness in third-party services, bottlenecks in garbage collection, slow memory leaks, JavaScript errors — and many more issues — all can disrupt holiday sales. The only true defense against these threats is a good offense.

Organizations must monitor all transactions in real time, from end to end, from each user click, across all tiers, to the database and back. The ability to identify the root cause of issues immediately is the only way to truly be prepared.

Check List

Based on the analysis of strong and weak performers from the 2011 Holiday shopping season, I recommend that retailers run through the check list below:

  • Check your third-party content: third-party content , e.g.: ads, social media plugs-ins, mapping services, is necessary, but it’s important to understand how this content affects performance and know if there are alternate solutions to embedded third-party content. That way, you can get back in control of your own performance.
  • Check the content you deliver and control: Check the content size and number of resources by content type. Reduce the size of images where possible and combine, minify and compress text files such as HTML, JavaScript and CSS files to reduce roundtrips and download time.
  • Check your JavaScript executions: JavaScript is a big source of performance problems. Use updated code libraries and coding practices. Analyze the impact of JavaScript performance across the major browsers, prioritizing the ones used by people who visit your site. Go beyond the browsers you use in development.
  • Check your redirect settings: Many sites still use a series of URL redirects even before the first HTML page is displayed to the user. Proper redirect configuration can save unnecessary roundtrips, avoid displaying blank browser windows and speed up page load time.
  • Check your server-side performance: Dynamic pages that require server-side processing, such as those containing location-based deals, the shopping cart, or product search results, can be slowed when servers get overloaded with too many requests or applications don’t scale well. When this happens performance problems begin to appear to your customers as slow page load and update times.

So how will retailers’ sites perform this Holiday season? Check my frequent video and blog reports to find out!