Beauty Killed the Beast—and Slowed Its Download Speed

Opinion: The latest Web performance ratings from Keynote Systems show a chasm between beautifully designed, slow sites and less attractive sites that are lightning-fast.

The latest batch of test results from Keynote Systems released Oct. 17 provides supporting evidence for those who argue that e-commerce sites must be simplified, reliable and fast even if that means being less gorgeous than other sites.

Consider the clothing retailer that came out as No. 1 in Keynotes rankings both for speed and reliability:, a shoe merchant worth $600 million, which easily beat out much better-funded rivals, including JC Penney, Kohls, Banana Republic and Nordstrom. On the other end of the spectrum, the Gap took last place in both categories.

A quick look at the sites of Zappos and the Gap shows why. Zappos home page uses tiny images and lots of text. The design is a bit crowded, but its functional and efficient. The Gaps home page autoplays music over a brightly colored Flash presentation. The Gap site no longer even has a search function, which it apparently removed a few months ago.

The metrics punish and reward appropriately. Zappos just-the-facts approach delivers a reliability, or uptime, percentage of 99.87 percent, compared with the Gaps 95.11 percent. The real killer was speed: Zappos delivered pages in about 3.83 seconds (the fastest in all of the categories Keynote published), compared with the Gaps leisurely 10.24 seconds.

Thats not the worst, though. That prize goes to in the electronics category, with a "Have they crashed again?" speed of 12.02 seconds. Amazons site outage problems have been known for months.

Keynote considers the site outage problem particularly serious for e-commerce. "Especially critical is the number of Outage Hours. This indicates that during the hour a significant number of users—from various geographic locations—were unable to complete the measured path such as shopping and adding a product to the cart," Ben Rushlo, senior manager of competitive research with Keynote, based in San Mateo, Calif., said in a company statement.

"Ideally, a site should have not a single outage during the week and many of the sites do achieve this goal. Other sites, however, consistently struggle to not have at least one major negative event during the week," Rushlo said.

/zimages/5/28571.gifReports suggest that "e-tailers" are getting better at responding to customers, but are having increasing trouble maintaining site uptime. Click here to read more.

Keynote has modified how it publicly discloses performance results and now breaks e-commerce site activity into three categories: Apparel, Books & Music, and Electronics. Of all of the retailers examined in all three categories, three retailers (and only three) were given perfect scores for uptime, and they were all in the electronics category: CDW, Circuit City and Staples.

The argument that e-commerce sites need to simplify is hardly new, but the factors forcing retailers hands are soaring. Even setting aside numbers such as Keynotes—which show a direct connection between design and site performance—and the fact that broadband-enabled consumers have very itchy mouse trigger fingers ("Delay just one GIF and Im outta here, pardner"), e-tailers need look no farther than their cell phones for motivation.

The two hottest segments in retail today are payment, primarily issues involving contactless payment and merging loyalty and payment cards; and mobile issues, including payment and customization.

The speed, display, keyboard, battery life and other limitations of even the smartest smart phones (PDA-phone hybrids) are going to raise serious questions about design. The prospect of a customer in a brick-and-mortar store whipping out a cell phone to check prices, look at reviews and peek at the inventory and sales of another store a mile away is no longer science fiction.

However, most major retail sites today are nothing short of torturous when accessed via smart phone, and a huge percentage of the problem deals with design. Real-time inventory is also a problem, but a practical cell phone version of the interface is an essential starting point. And, yes, that "torturous" comment was based on experiences working with a very fast broadband cell connection looking at the supposedly cell phone-friendly versions of major retail sites.

Not to pile on, but legal issues surrounding site accessibility—pity poor Target, whose site is fighting compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—is another critical reason that sites need to be made much simpler.

For the moment, though, heres the best argument: How must it feel for IT executives at the Gap to be taught a lesson by Zappos? That must really hurt.

Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at

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