Web performance can make or break the brand

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For clarity's sake, we think of the Web, bricks-and-mortar stores, print catalogs and the call center as four distinct channels in a multichannel retail mix.

In reality, each channel flows into the others like so many streams converging into a powerful river that is the face of your business.

So, if your store is a mess, that's not going to help your Web sales. If your catalog is weak, why would anyone want to visit the store? And as shoppers increasingly spend their money by pointing and clicking, a bad Web experience can irreparably damage your brand. Pollute one channel and the whole river is spoiled.

When we surveyed shoppers during the 2006 holiday season, we were surprised by the complexity of channel relationships and the degree to which one channel can make or break the others. Here are a few findings:

• It takes only one bad Web experience. Sixty-five percent of online shoppers would stop, or at least reconsider, shopping at a company's physical store if they had a poor online experience. Seventy-one percent of shoppers said a bad experience at a bricks-and-mortar store would make them stop, or at least reconsider, shopping at that store's online counterpart.

• Since shoppers do a lot of their pre-purchase research online, a bad online experience can kill the sale before a customer gets near the store. The shoppers we surveyed go online to research an average of 30 percent of the purchases that they make offline. If they can't find out about your product, why would they drive anywhere to buy it?

• It works both ways. Sixty-two percent of shoppers said they use print catalogs to guide their online purchasing decisions.

With more shoppers spending more money online, it's important to shore up the Web experience. In addition to having the right content logically organized, you need to keep a close watch on your site's download time, performance consistency and transaction success rates across all geographies and connection types.

You need to bang on your site with systematic synthetic tests and simultaneously see what real users are really experiencing in their browsers. You also need a business culture focused on the customer experience, in this case the customer's Web experience. After all, a lot is at risk: revenue, customers, the brand, the business. What else is there?

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