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In Theory, E-Commerce Sites Are Way Too Slow. But Do Customers Care?

Written by Frank Hayes
January 25th, 2012

Speed-tuning for retail Web sites may have finally hit a wall. A report released Wednesday (Jan. 25) says Nike, JCPenney, JCrew and Amazon had the fastest retail sites in 2011. But the survey also notes that the most popular and profitable sites are actually slower to load than the average site, because they contain so much content, and that content delivery networks don’t actually speed up load times.

In theory, load times of 3 seconds or more should cost retailers half their customers. If that’s true, E-tailers should be going out of business. Maybe it’s time to dump those theories.

The author of that report is a Web site performance vendor called Strangeloop Networks, so it’s hard to blame the company for pushing performance. But according to the study of 2,000 E-Commerce sites (which includes WellsFargo.com in its top 10, so this is a pretty loose definition of E-Commerce), only three retail Web sites have sub-3-second load times. Strangeloop says research dating back 40 years shows that two seconds is the optimal load time, and 57 percent of customers will abandon a site after 3 seconds.

Forty years of research? That’s back to mainframe days and, yes, two seconds is a long time to wait for the next mainframe screen to appear on your terminal. But there’s nothing magical about that two-second number. Consumers don’t throw out their PCs because Microsoft Word takes longer than 3 seconds to load or a giant spreadsheet takes more than 3 seconds to finish calculating.

And they clearly haven’t abandoned E-Commerce sites in droves, despite the fact that 1,997 of the 2,000 sites in this study take more than 3 seconds to load. In fact, typical load times for major retail sites run between 3 and 6 seconds, with the average load time for retail sites hovering around 10 seconds. The theory may dictate a two-second holy grail. Reality disagrees.

That’s the biggest trouble with trying to drive E-Commerce site performance by the numbers: Faster isn’t always better. What’s better is whatever sells more merchandise.

This is probably why homepages are getting bigger.


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One Comment | Read In Theory, E-Commerce Sites Are Way Too Slow. But Do Customers Care?

  1. Jason Goldberg Says:

    I love it when the data in vendor studies directly contradicts the conclusion, and thanks for call it out.

    In the case of page load speed, while I am skeptical of the urban legands quantifing the effect of pageload (1 conversion drop per 100ms, etc…), I have seen a number of first hand examples of improved performance directly improving bounce rate and conversion. So my own experience tells me that speed is an important factor in customer experience… I just don’t believe it can be reduced to a simple equation.

    I wonder if one of the problems with the data in the study is how tricky it is to measure page load speed as perceived by the user. Many of those sites with very large pages and long load times, are optimized to load asynchronously. So the first screen of content comes in fast, and content below the fold (and many of the scripts, tracking pixels, etc) come in after the fact. So it’s entirely possible that a consumer saw their first page of content in 3 seconds even though it took 9 for the “full” page to load.

    If we’re talking about consumer behavior, then we should probably be talking about perceived load times, not measured load times.

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