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INTERVIEW: Approved Food’s Dan Cluderay on Web UX

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A common observation emerging from InternetRetailing’s research into customer experience has been that smaller, more nimble retailers can create loyal customers as they improve ecommerce and multichannel processes ahead of rivals. It’s apparently an area that doesn’t have the increasing economies of scale common to logistics and brand value. How web pages are built, impacting on the visual experience and usability of the website, has been improving for as long as ecommerce – arguably, there’s little difference between constant optimisation and waiting a few months for a platform upgrade. But in a world where consumer loyalty is a zero sum game, retailers stand to gain by pushing ahead of the trend and Approved Food is an example of a retailer that’s done exactly that.

The InternetRetailing Web Performance Tracker shows consistently performing well. We asked Dan Cluderay, founder, what has motivated the discount food retailer to focus on site performance, what the results have been, and at what cost.

“We know that response time is king and slow sites are quickly abandoned in favour of faster competitors” – Dan Cluderay

InternetRetailing: What has the company done to ensure that the site performs well?

Dan Cluderay, left, with Andy Needham, Managing Director

Dan Cluderay, founder of Approved Food (pictured left): In brief, the website software is entirely developed and maintained in house and isn’t an off the shelf package. As such, we own the IP and work with our hosting partners, UK Fast, to ensure customers get a great experience from both the software and hardware. Development expertise enables us to wring every last ounce of performance out of the systems and continually develop a lean, fast and scalable website. Every day many micro-changes are made to our systems to continue to improve the performance and user experience.

IR: Why – what are you hoping to achieve?

DC: The ultimate aim is to provide a fast, responsive, easy to use website that enables our customers to shop with ease whether they’re the only visit or one of thousands. We know that response time is king and slow sites are quickly abandoned in favour of faster competitors.

Rapid iteration enables us to continue to keep pushing what is possible, adapt to customer expectations and build a solid platform that the whole business can depend on. After all, our website is our shop front and our hardest working employee.

IR: How do you measure success?

DC: Success is a good customer experience and we measure a lot of metrics to make sure we’re hitting the mark. In addition to our own metrics systems, we use more technical metrics such as New Relic to help is drill down into areas that may be causing issues. We can measure results on end user systems that help us improve our site, such as a specific Android model that may be struggling with an Account page, maybe some new device that goes faster than others, etc. New Relic is at the core of our metrics.

PageSpeed is a good metric that feels more connected to the end user experience. It provides a common number by which developers can see if their systems are running as expected but expectations change over time. Most of what PageSpeed describes is general best practice and ultimately connects with the change in user behaviour, e.g., in the last year Google has re-focused attention onto Mobile and the new newer PageSpeed reflects that.

I would caveat metrics by saying that website home pages can easily be highly optimised to skew the blind metrics in their favour by using tricks such as deferred content, lazy loading, not delivering content to known bots (pagespeed). In the end, the site owners are just being blind to the actual experience the end user has.

IR: How regularly do you review and set new targets?

DC: Every day, 24/7. We constantly monitor the performance of our systems and push them forwards.

We go through regular development phases of adding new features but always ensuring that performance is king. If the feature is slow for end users then it has to be optimised or it isn’t used.

New Relic tells us exactly what’s going off for every unique client session: from our server hardware, server software, network performance and end user browser experience. We work very closely with our hosting partners, UK Fast, to ensure everything is running amazingly fast and we can easily cope with the spikes of traffic we see, such as when we appear on TV.

IR: How important is the customer’s website experience to your business, relative to other areas of concern such as logistics or marketing?

DC: We believe that the experience is of paramount importance, it’s the customer’s first touch point with our business and continues to be with every interaction we have. It’s akin to walking into a streamlined, clean, efficient shopping experience that people expect from the likes of Amazon or eBay and the bricks and mortar experience of Tesco or ASDA.

IR: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a smaller retailer?

DC: Although to the outside world we may appear to be small, I don’t think we are a small retailer; the volume of page views, unique sessions, time on site, average page views per visit certainly competes with what are perceived to be big businesses.

We have all the things you’d expect of an experienced development team, solid code, secure techniques and vigorous testing. Our small team has the ability to rapidly iterate changes to the live systems, trial and error, using survival of the fittest to keep the features our customers value. Maintaining this agile development process is difficult while aiming to keep new features rolling out without disrupting the shopping experience.

IR: What advice would you have for others looking to make their sites perform better?

DC: Simply put, measure everything! Get New Relic, analyse, iterate and push forwards. Listen to your customers, after all they are the lifeblood of any business.

Our team at Approved Food has decades of experience at writing lean, efficient, highly scalable software that squeeze every ounce of performance out of systems. We are passionate about our customer experience and strive to bring excellence to our online stores!

About Approved Food

Approved Food was founded seven years ago when ex software engineer-cum-Market Trader, Dan Cluderay, took his market stall selling value for money food and drink online. All IT systems were developed in-house from scratch with a very competitive UX being developed as a result.

So far this year has received 3.5m sessions, 1.9m users, 72m pageviews, 20.6 pages/session, 18:20 average session duration and a bounce rate of 4.41 per cent.

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