Brylane Works to Boost Page Load Speed

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Brylane Inc., a cataloger and online retailer of misses and plus-size apparel, is working to speed performance of its nine Web sites after noticing that pages load slower for consumers on the West Coast.


Sites like brylane.com, chadwicks.com or lernercatalog.com typically take less than 4 seconds to load a page for consumers on the East Coast. West Coast requests to those sites take 5 to 9 seconds.


"Depending on all the variables, the faster the page, the more the likelihood of consumers putting items in the shopping cart and placing an order," said Alexander Betancur, chief technical officer of New York-based Brylane's interactive media group. "There is more likelihood of conversion."


To quickly assess any slowdowns, Brylane is using technology from Keynote Systems Inc., San Mateo, CA. Keynote benchmarks, diagnoses and tests the technical performance of Brylane's sites. It helps identify bottlenecks, such as whether a router is down, and issues with transaction disruptions or incomplete gif downloads. Keynote also conducts hourly tests for 17 possible breakpoints in a Brylane online transaction.


"[But] our fastest method of finding an error is a customer," Betancur said. "Everything is event-based."


At issue is shopper abandonment, which has consumed online retailers since the advent of e-commerce. A Zona Research study in mid-1999 claimed that more than one-third of consumers may abandon buying an item if the online store's Web page did not load in 8 seconds.


Many retailers have challenged Zona's conclusions. This is especially true of retailers whose image-heavy pages take longer to load on slower dial-up Internet connections such as America Online. But it is a fact that frustrated online consumers can easily shop at a competitor's site.


On the flip side, online consumers are wiser about the Internet. They understand that just like retail stores, page loads may be slower this time of year given the holiday crush.


Still, Brylane knows it cannot afford to be lax. Acquired in 1998 by French-owned Pinault-Printemps-Redoute's home shopping division, the retailer since has vastly expanded its e-commerce offerings.


The company now has sites for Chadwick's of Boston and Lerner Catalog in misses apparel for women; Jessica London, Lane Bryant Catalog and Roaman's in plus-size apparel; Men's Big & Tall Clothing; and Brylane Home and Brylane Home Kitchen. There is also the brylane.com corporate site.


Each site is rich in graphics. That is where Brylane has to balance creative layout to maximize sales per pixel and the ability to load pages quicker, which requires less imagery. Both affect business.


"The faster the page, the more chances of getting more items in your basket," Betancur said. "But you have to balance that with dollars to spend and projected dollars in revenue."


Brylane has one hosting location in Newark, NJ. The farther visitors get from New Jersey, the slower the page loads. In addition to the physical distance slowing the page load, routers along the path can redirect the traffic to different segments, further increasing the distance and tacking on milliseconds.


The company will not disclose numbers or the respective contribution to revenue of consumers on both coasts. But like many retailers, it realizes that Internet-experience expectations are rising and switching costs are falling for customers.


Boosting infrastructure is one way to tackle that issue. Within nine months, Brylane plans to build another hosting center in Indiana to improve West Coast page loads.


It also is looking at edge-caching technology that stores Web pages closer to users. The most common content would be replicated at key network operating areas by a third party. So, if the consumer is in Los Angeles, a third-party cache content deliverer such as Akamai or Speedero would serve the pages from their base in California. Brylane is still looking at companies to deliver cached content, Betancur said.


This cache delivery is limited to images and text, and not transaction pages, which are behind a firewall.


So, what Brylane wants is to boost the number of online shopping carts and checkouts and lower unnecessary consumer calls to customer service representatives.


"When pages are slow, we get an increasing number of customer support calls, and those calls are very, very expensive," Betancur said. "When pages are slower, people not only abandon shopping carts, but also call to place orders."


Often, slow page loads are not even the retailer's fault. It could be a backbone issue, accidents with equipment or a snag at the Internet service provider's end. Then there is the delay caused by the number of hops, or nodes, a requested Web page must pass through nationwide to pull up in front of the consumer.


"The nirvana is one hop," Betancur said. "What we want to do is send our customer a page under 4 seconds, and that's a challenge every day."


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