The need for speed – How retailers can respond to consumers’ ‘mobile-first’ behaviour

The retail landscape has been altered beyond all recognition in the light of COVID. The fact that things won’t go back to how they were was recently acknowledged by the CEO of M&S Steve Rowe. He envisaged a future where customers “may never shop the same way again” after the coronavirus crisis, with the pandemic driving several changes, including a shift to online.

To embrace this new reality retailers truly need to build e-commerce capabilities to bridge the gap and, in the online extension of their shopping experience, develop a mobile-first approach to serving their customers. Those of us who work in e-commerce understand the need for speed when it comes to mobile performance – no one wants a slow loading mobile web page. But a report has just been published that for the first time quantifies the impact that speed has on business performance and ROI.

We instinctively know as consumers that digital experiences that are responsive and tailored to our needs have a direct impact on our shopping behaviour, and that consumer expectations for this are constantly rising. There is a surprising paucity of research into the consumer impact of the cause and impact of this. The empirical research in this field is still quoted today is from Amazon studies dating back to 2006, and an Intuit study from 2013 that refers to the benefits of page loading time being reduced from 15 seconds to 7 seconds. Today, we are measuring the commercial impact of 100milliseconds of delay.

So Google commissioned fifty-five and Deloitte Digital to embark on one of the most comprehensive site speed studies to date. Their report, titled ‘Milliseconds makes Millions’, analysed 30 million user sessions engaging with the European mobile sites of brands across three key sectors – retail, travel and luxury – and the findings for retail were compelling.

Focus on the product detail page

An insight that demanded our initial attention was how important it is to focus on the load times of your product detail page, compared to pages that we often obsess over, such as the homepage. This may be because your site visitors are already loyal to your brand, and value the browsing process, whereas those going straight to the product page might be coming from an ad and focused on completing a specific purchase. For these task-orientated shoppers, it is easy for them to bounce and go to a competitor if your site fails to load quickly enough.

Retail shoppers were found to be more sensitive to these top-of-funnel page load issues than, for example, travel shoppers, who perhaps are more understanding of the delay in providing pricing calculations. In retail, there was measurably less tolerance for these site delays. The poor performance of marketers’ mobile websites, including slow page load times,

continues to be an issue for a range of possible reasons, but overall we can see that smartphone users are conditioned to navigate away when they get frustrated, even before they see the content or products they searched for.

Data points

Our analysis of retailers’ mobile sites was based on 20.5m user sessions across 15 retail brands. We analysed over 30 site metrics, and calculated their impact on a range of user behaviour and purchasing goals. Most significantly, we isolated four measures that had the greatest impact: Sites with a 0.1s faster site speed in four categories of the buying process improved effectiveness of homepage, product listing page and product detail pages – all critical in the buying journey. Collectively, these sites generated 9.2% sales and user transactions were measured to increase by 8.4%.

It is important to go into the detail of these findings, because the study shows that it is the combination of these factors that creates the uplift, because a combination of performance features drive positive change in progression through the purchase funnel on mobile devices.

To be more precise, user transactions increase by 8.4% when there is a 0.1 second improvement in four specific site speed metrics – Max Server Latency, First Meaningful Paint, Estimated Input Latency, and Observed Load. We measured a wide range of site performance statistics, and these were the areas that consumers were found to be most sensitive to. Product listing page bounce rate on mobile, for example, reduced by 5.4% for 4 in 10 brands. In general, we measured a positive change on page views per session, conversion rate and average order value.

Next steps

Investing in speed is one of the key ingredients that leads to a brand’s online success. Brands that achieve this efficiency of performance do not do so by accident – they make the benchmarking of their site’s speed a priority across an organisation and introduce it as one of their primary performance indicators. They adopt a mobile-first mind-set, introduce the right processes and allocate resources to constantly monitor and optimise speed.

Most crucially, to be successful you need to be careful not to be sucked into merely measuring your own mobile site, but you need to benchmark your performance against your competitors.

Consumers have a choice, and they want satisfying browsing and an enjoyable experience, simple paths to purchase and lots of easy-to-access help when faced with a barrier in their journey. If your site is slower than your competitors’, then today’s demanding consumer will desert your site and find one that works better for them – it’s as simple as that.

The need for speed is more than the need for a great experience, prices or products. This report demonstrates that it is the driver. Retailers need to minimise latency in mobile performance in 2020 and beyond, and benchmark themselves against the best in the market in order to succeed.

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