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Peak trading demands just got more demanding

No one likes a smartypants who says, ‘I told you so,’ but, judging by the number of commercial web sites that stalled or slowed over the weeks leading up to and during Black Friday – some many more which continue to face issues during Peak, the writing’s on the wall. It is perhaps no irony that some of the retailers that had the worse problems were either about to go into administration or are operating in a sector of retail that is under serious threat from online competition.

This was unacceptable in 2019 but if 2020 has taught us anything about consumers it’s that they are more demanding than ever. And these demands are increasingly online rather than in the store; by combining figures from the US Census with the UK Office for National Statistics, and by including online grocery, it looks like online commerce may account for around 40% of retail, up from only 15% in 2019.

According to Adobe in 2019, consumers spend an average of 8.8 hours a day engaging with digital content, while it’s higher for Gen Z (11.4 hours) and Millennials (10.9 hours). And that was before the pandemic.

User experience and site navigation are journeys of continuous improvement, but site speed and load times are not; consumers will navigate away more quickly than ever if pages do not load quickly or the site is slow. And there appears to be no evidence that, just because more of them are working from home, they are more patient. The opposite is true. In the Adobe study, again pre pandemic, more than half (51%) of consumers said they would stop viewing content all together if it takes too long to load.

In addition, in 2019 17% of Gen Z made a purchase using a smart speaker or home assistant, up 165% from 2018. Figures are not yet available for 2020 but it will be higher given that almost all these devices are in the home and this is where patience is about as thin as it’s ever likely to get, with consumers expecting to wait no more than a second for a response.

So, there’s a double whammy for retailers – they need to embrace demand for shopping through smart speakers, TV and social media but these are the very channels where willingness to wait for a response are the very lowest. And in 2021, with predictions that there will be no mass return to offices, retailers will need more urgently to work out how to take best advantage of these channels.

The people who rate page speeds are making moves. Google announced at the start of 2020 that it will be making changes to its ranking algorithm from May 2021 so that page speed will be added as one of the ranking signals, something it calls Web Vitals.

The best advice will be to monitor speed continuously and often because constant design updates, third party plug ins and other modifications will affect it. Site and page compression will also help so that key elements of a page load first, to keep the customer engaged. And of course dedicated IP and hosting are a must because your neighbours on shared hosting are almost certain to be affecting your speeds.

Beyond speed, it is essential to monitor user experience using Dynamic User Journeys synthetic monitoring to simulate the paths visitors navigate on your site – whether they are completing a simple task or conducting the most complicated multi-page transactions.  Measuring in real-time the performance, availability and consistency of journeys across your website, as experienced by end-users.

The rate at which these checks and balances need to be managed is important but not simply because of the activities of third party plugs ins, but more because of the consumer. Just how much they have changed their online behaviour can only be measured today anecdotally or even instinctively. Figures based on research into a moment in time when consumers said they would change certain behaviours forever are not reliable, but one generalisation we can make for sure is, their habits will be erratic and unpredictable. And this should be reason enough to test, test and test again, to make sure that the site can meet the needs of these battle-weary consumers that are not going to go back to the time when they put up with anything but the best possible experience from their suppliers.

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