The Holiday Realm - Retailers are Off to a Great Start
Test and Monitor | Posted December 02, 2013

It’s once again that time of the year when we spend heavily. No matter what your preference might be (Turkey day, Black Friday, Cyber Monday or Green Monday) this time of the year sees a major surge in shopping – both online and off.

For retailers it’s not so much about any one specific day, it’s about the season – the Holiday Season. The holidays are an important time for retail ecommerce as it can represent for some retailers as much as 20-40% of annual sales. This year 60% of retailers are forecasting growth in excess of 10% in revenue. While our data can’t speak to revenues, it certainly can speak to user experience of the top 50 retailers’ sites this year.

Ready or Not - Traffic will surge!

The new official start of the holiday season this year is Thanksgiving Day. Experts in the industry made some predictions for this season, which could impact retailers’ Web performance and user experience:

  • Comscore predicted this day to be the heaviest online spending day in history with spending reaching $1.8 billion
  • National Retail Federation expects a marginal sales increase of 3.9% during the months of November and December this year.
  • also forecasted online sales to grow between 13-15% this holiday season.

Based on those predictions if retailers failed to prepare their site for the Holiday Grinch, the results could be devastating. It’s no longer enough to rely solely on the technical metrics to determine whether or not your site is delivering an outstanding customer experience – visual user experience is essential to understand what sort of user experience your online presence is delivering.

Ken Godskind, VP of monitoring products at AlertSite by Smartbear defines visual user experience as an individual’s perception of their digital relationship with your organization. According to Godskind, great user experiences are all about usability and usability is all about flow and speed. Not only should the user be able to accomplish his task but it should be done in an instant.

We measured the web performance and user experience of the top 50 retailers on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, over the week-end to get a feel of what the user experience was like on these days. The graphs below show the perceived user experience metrics first paint and above the fold time for the 50 retailers in comparison to the full page response times:


The average first paint time on each of these days was 1.4s a time that does not exceed the 2-3 seconds that users expect a Web page to load before they abandon a site. The above the fold time averages around 3.0s. Amazingly all the sites delivered great user experience, no major outages were recorded. Availability was at 99.60% on each day with the exception of Apple‘s availability that was at 86.46% on Friday morning due to site updates. It is usual for Apple to take its site down as it makes updates to prepare for Black Friday.

Understanding Speed as it Relates to Website Performance and User Experience

Perceived performance metrics are great measures of speed and key for understanding speed as it relates to website performance and user experience. Instead of focusing on how long it takes the network to deliver every resource referenced in the website HTML to the browser from the network, they measure the point at which the web page first paints and stabilizes above the fold.  I’ve gathered some data from the home pages of a few retailers:


There are times when the perceived performance metrics differ significantly from the traditional network metrics but there are other times when they don’t - and that is why it is important to understand which metrics is the best measure of speed for your website. I’ve provided some screenshots to illustrate the differences:

Toys R Us

[caption id="attachment_14948" align="aligncenter" width="285"]toys-first-paint First Paint: 1.5870s[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_14949" align="aligncenter" width="285"]toys-above-the-fold Above the fold: 7.4280s[/caption]

Abercrombie & Fitch

[caption id="attachment_14950" align="aligncenter" width="285"]abercrombie-first-paint First Paint: 1.0660s[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_14951" align="aligncenter" width="285"]abercrombie-above-fold Above the Fold: 2.7850s[/caption]

In the case of both Toys R Us and Abercrombie, the First Paint metric does not represent the best measure of perceived user experience. Even tough it only took less than two seconds for the user to see the first burst of paint activity on the page, most of the relevant content wasn’t loaded yet.

The screenshots below show a different scenario where the First paint time can be used as the best measure of speed. With both sites, by the time the user’s eyeballs would notice the first burst of paint activity on the screen, all the relevant content was already displayed on the page.


[caption id="attachment_14952" align="aligncenter" width="285"]systemax-first-paint First Paint: 0.4680s[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_14953" align="aligncenter" width="285"]systemax-above-the-fold Above the fold: 1.0300s[/caption]

Wayfair LLC

[caption id="attachment_14954" align="aligncenter" width="285"]wayfair-first-paint First Paint: 1.4190s[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_14955" align="aligncenter" width="285"]wayfair-above-the-fold Above the Fold: 9.5630s[/caption]

It’s great to measure the technical performance of your website, but it’s even better to measure the speed of your site as the user sees it – by doing so users will have a pleasant and enjoyable experience at your site and will certainly return in the future.

Food for thought – Target

The redesign of Target’s website raised a few eyebrows – mess is the word used by many to describe it.  One key element of a well design website is appearance – keep it simple, use uncluttered layouts. While many believed that the new Target website violated this principle – I’d like you to focus on the performance and user experience of the website. Our data revealed that on these four days (Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Saturday and Sunday) Target delivered great site performance and user experience; availability was 99.82%. Take a look at the screenshots below:

[caption id="attachment_14956" align="aligncenter" width="285"]target-first-paint First Paint: 1.3940s[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_14957" align="aligncenter" width="285"]target-above-the-fold Above the fold: 3.1360s[/caption]

The holiday season is no longer around the corner - it’s here. More than ever, it’s time for retailers to prove themselves when it comes to Web performance and user experience. Downtime can be costly; retailers must be ready for everything and anything that will hit their site as they go through this holiday shopping season.

Happy Holidays!

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