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All five leading retailer websites in the US offer less than stellar customer experience. PHOTO: Zak Suhar

Every website developer hopes to provide the best possible customer experience.

This is especially important for retail sites, where positive customer experiences can immediately result in sales. However, most retail websites fall short of the mark.

Why is that? Let's take a closer look at some of the top retail websites, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and share some of the lessons to be learned.

Evaluating 5 Retail Websites

A cursory analysis of the top five retailer websites in the US — Walmart, Kroger, Costco, Walgreens and Home Depot — revealed the following issues:

Slow Page Speeds

Page load times are critical for retailers. Consumers expect a certain level of performance from the pages they visit, and are likely to leave pages that do not appear in a certain timeframe. For e-commerce websites, slow pages translate directly into lost sales.

Surprisingly, the top two retailers, Walmart and Kroger, performed the worst in our speed tests. Some of their pages took as long as 13 seconds to load.

According to Kissmetrics, 47 percent of consumers expect a web page to load in two seconds or less, and a one second delay in page response can result in a 7 percent reduction in conversions. For large retailers like Walmart and Kroger, this can result in millions of dollars in lost sales.

Websites are generally slow because of third-party services and their associated DNS lookups.

The top retailers employ sophisticated marketing technologies to study and forecast consumer buying patterns. They do this by adding third-party services that capture and report this information. The problem is that there are many criteria that can be analyzed, and each will often add a separate DNS lookup.

Sometimes, you can track too much. Third-party services are valuable tools to today’s retail marketers, but they can be overused.

Be sure to regularly monitor your page load times. If they are longer than two seconds, reduce the number of third-party services, pre-fetch DNS requests or move tracking scripts to your CDN. 

Lack of Security

Security is a must on retail websites. Customers are required to enter sensitive information in every transaction, and it is critical that retailers protect this information every step of the process.

Given that, it's surprising that Home Depot’s main website does not use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a standard technology for establishing a secure link between a browser and a web server. It uses encryption technology to protect all communications.

To be fair, Home Depot does use SSL once you are on the transaction pages, but even parts of those pages are not secure and will trigger Mixed Content warnings in some browsers. This will leave some users wondering if the experience is secure.

Home Depot should use SSL throughout its website. Its web developers might argue that they took this approach to keep the website lean and fast. That is true, but the impact is very small. If the developers implemented SSL throughout the website, they could easily offset any hit on performance by scaling and optimizing some of the images on their site.  

Google recognizes the risks. Google’s popular Chrome browser — which has 42 percent market share according to NetMarketShare — is going to start warning users about SSL compliance on websites.

The browser will start shaming websites that don’t have SSL on them by displaying a red “X” next to their URL to warn users of the security risks. SSL utilization also impacts rankings within Google’s search results algorithm.

Poor SEO

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the collection of strategies and techniques retailers use to get their products in front of potential customers via the popular search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.).

Many customers — even avid Amazon customers — usually start their online shopping at Google because it allows them to compare prices at multiple stores. If the pricing is about the same, Amazon may earn the sale. However, if another retailer offers exceptionally pricing, then they will probably buy it there.

The top five retailers we analyzed all could stand improvement based on our SEO tests. They all tend to reuse the same descriptions, headings or keywords across multiple product pages, which makes it difficult to differentiate the product pages.

It's very difficult to write unique product descriptions and headers for hundreds of thousands of products. Instead, large retailers may auto-generate their descriptions and headings where they haven’t curated the SEO tags.

This is an area that could offer a distinct advantage for smaller retailers. Large retailers don’t have the manpower to effectively market every product, but specialty retailers could successfully own a brand or niche.

For example, a specialty kitchen supplier will never sell as many faucets as Home Depot, but it might want to own the Google keywords for specific high-end brands to drive customers to its store.

Website Analysis is Critical

This review of the top retailer websites revealed some very common issues that can be easily diagnosed through proper website analysis.

Website analysis is an important part of the website development and maintenance process.

At the end of the day, the goal is to sell as many products online as possible. That cannot be achieved without first providing a fast, safe and secure web experience.

This article is based on website analysis performed in mid-October 2016.  No destructive testing occurred.