All metrics based off of the performance data of Catchpoint’s customized list of Top 50 eCommerce sites.

While many of us were stuffing ourselves full of turkey, cranberry sauce, and…stuffing on Thanksgiving, internet retailers were gearing up for the massive eCommerce traffic spurred by Black Friday deals. While the brick and mortar stores remain packed, an increasing number of shoppers are electing to kick off their holiday shopping from the comfort of their own homes (where risk of injury by trampling is practically zero), and so the importance of those eCommerce sites’ performance is greater than ever.

With those surges in web traffic, however, come inevitable latency and outage issues for overloaded servers. We’ve been stressing the importance of preparing for the holiday shopping rush for weeks – including slimming down and optimizing your site, testing your systems, and preparing for the worst – to ensure that you don’t miss out on the country’s biggest shopping period of the year.

Yet as we’ve always said, failures are bound to happen even to the best of us.

Fatter Sites = Slower Load Times

With the percentage of internet users doing their shopping on mobile devices increasing – more than half of Thursday’s traffic came from mobile according to IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmark – yet from for the 24 hours from 6 pm EST on Thursday through 6 pm on Black Friday, mobile sites were roughly a full second slower due to much heavier pages, while desktop sites suffered similar latency issues:

List Avg. Downloaded Bytes Mdn. Document Complete (ms) Mdn. Webpage Response (ms) % Availability
Mobile 2013 546,460.34 1,283 1,920 97.864
Mobile 2014 1,028,413.44 2,060 2,948 97.595
Desktop 2013 1,518,842.76 1,990 3,387 98.465
Desktop 2014 1,905,021.11 2,438 3,985 99.702

The Danger of Too Many Requests

In addition to generally slower times, some major retailers saw their sites suffer serious performance problems on Thursday and Friday, most notably electronics giant Best Buy, suffered multiple outages during the weekend.

They weren’t the only ones, however, as other major retailers experienced slowness due to an abundance of bytes and requests on their site. In most of these cases, the primary URL loaded faster than average, but JavaScript or third party tags dragged their performance times down to unacceptable levels. This is why we regularly tell people to limit the amount of objects and requests on their pages as much as possible. One clothing apparel company came in at the bottom of our mobile speed rankings, with the culprit being a single third party element that was loading far slower than all the others, thus resulting in what was surely some frustrated end users.

Of course, keeping eCommerce pages slim is a challenge in and of itself given the need to draw attention to certain deals that you’re featuring on the site. That’s when optimization and page construction becomes key, as these elements should be placed after document complete to mitigate their impact.

Amazon’s Close Call

Amazon also avoided a potentially disastrous moment when their cloud services suffered a CDN outage on Wednesday night.

Amazon cloud

The problem was corrected in time for Thanksgiving and Black Friday, so the impact upon Amazon’s holiday revenue was likely minimal. But it’s another example of the complexity of internet systems causing many potential pitfalls for retailers. The bigger you are, the more infrastructure you require to deliver your content to users, and thus the amount of things that can go wrong increases as well.

Mitigating the Impact of Failures

It’s also important to remember that with so much complexity, a great deal of performance issues are out of the hands of the IT and DevOps teams. Nobody is perfect; failure is going to happen and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. Staples stood out in this regard, as they have been suffering from partial outages and slowness throughout the day on Cyber Monday, but utilized a solid error screen that linked to their weekly ad and provided a phone number for customer service.

Staples Cyber Monday

Winners and Lessons Learned

Five Fastest Desktop Sites:*

  1. H&M
  2. Costco
  3. Apple
  4. Barnes & Noble
  5. Etsy

Five Fastest Mobile Sites:*

  1. Sears
  2. Grainger
  3. Office Depot
  4. Ikea US
  5. Saks Direct
* – rankings based on median webpage response times from Black Friday through noon on Cyber Monday

The lessons learned from this Thanksgiving/Black Friday period are simple: ensuring the best speed and availability (especially on mobile) requires keeping pages as light and with as few requests as possible. Failing to do so puts your customers’ satisfaction at risk, and by extension, your eCommerce revenue. Because when your site is down or slow, someone else’s is up, and your customers may just find their way over there rather than dealing with the frustrations of poor performance.

Author Mehdi Daoudi

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