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£8.5bn will be lost this year due to websites taking longer to load than their customers are prepared to wait estimates online marketing, ecommerce and retail consulting specialist Summit . CEO Hedley Aylott explains further.

Three seconds has become the accepted time for a web page to load and the figure against which the industry benchmarks itself. However, by analysing the most popular 230 retail websites in the UK and benchmarking them against the industry standard for site speed at different times of the day and week, summit has found that a staggering 92% of websites failed to meet this accepted 3-second performance benchmark. In fact, during the research period, some sites took as long as 8 seconds for pages to load and across all categories of retail we measured, every site performed significantly worse at peak trading times – exactly when you’d want your site to work at its best.

Time is one thing but let’s turn seconds into pounds for a minute. From a commercial point of view, we estimate that it’s costing each retailer who failed in our benchmark study at least a 10% drop in conversion. To clarify, our research concluded that the average speed for retail websites in the industry is 4.5 seconds. That’s 1.5 seconds over the industry benchmark. According to Aberdeen Research Group, a one second delay in page load speeds will impact conversions by 7%. Using a calculation that allows for other factors we’ve applied a sliding scale of impact to conversions which leads to an estimate that 4.5 seconds will have a 9.83% impact on conversions. We’ve rounded that number up to 10%. So, that’s about £10m for a company turning over £100m online.

That’s a lot of money lost for nothing; probably the cost of opening at least 3-5 new high-street stores. All because the website is slow to load. I’ve got to be honest now. Come on retailers, isn’t this madness? You wouldn’t allow a slow point-of-sale in store affect your sales on busy weekends because you understand the impact on revenue and the frustration caused to customers. This is happening every day across the websites we measured. I’d argue that continuous site underperformance is actually worse than down-time. Isolated incidents of downtime will be forgiven by customers. Continuous under-performance will not. Slowness is the silent revenue and reputation killer that goes unmeasured across most businesses today.


It’s also not a new problem. The internet community has been alert to the correlation between speed and customer satisfaction for many years, supported by robust evidence. Usability guru Jacob Neilsen highlighted the link about 13 years ago and raised speed as the basic necessity for human interface design.

The need for website speed comes not through a growing level of human impatience but actually through our own human limitations which aren’t likely to change any faster than evolution. In fact, a basic understanding of neuroscience and how our memory works will reveal why the 3-second page load-time benchmark is here to stayIn simple terms, information stored in our short-term memory has a very limited shelf life, around 10 seconds.

Exceed that time period and you might as well forget it – literally. Asking our brain to extend and work harder in this short-term phase makes us agitated and causes stress. It’s simply an uncomfortable experience for the brain. Let’s look more closely at memory and how the brain is working. At any given moment there are three types of memory at work:

1. Sensory memory

2. Short-term memory

3. Working memory

Firstly, when a person sees something this information is captured by the Photoreceptor cells in the eye and transferred to the Occipital Lobe in the brain, commonly known as the iconic memory. This is one of the brain’s three sensory memory areas, the others look after touch and smell. This is our temporary ‘cache’, a short-termmemory dump that holds information for nolonger than 100ms. After 100ms our brain’s‘memory cache’ runs out and is refreshed. We have no control over what is stored in our iconic memory or how long it lasts.

Some of the information will however ‘stick’ as long as it is passed from our sensory memory to our short-term memory and used quickly.

The role of short-term memory is to take all the sensory information thrown at it and process the relevant pieces into some form and order that can be passed to the working memory to use. This short-term memory deposit has a threshold of about 10-15 seconds, providing the working memory with enough time to process and control the information.

So, the information ‘baton passing’ that makes our memory work and enables us to make decisions is exactly why delays or overload during this ‘memory relay’ can cause user meltdown. We’ve got to keep refreshing the iconic memory at the right pace (around 100 milliseconds) in order to stop information being lost so that the short and working memory have sufficient time for processing.

This brings about the concept of ‘flow’. Some theorists have suggested that our brains are wired to perform simple tasks that have rhythm and flow to them. The process of interacting with a difficult website accompanied by theblizzard of distracting signals going on around us make our memory systems less likely to cope.


The neurological impact of poorly performing websites has been the subject of a fascinating study at Glasgow Caledonian University by CA Technologies. Participants on the study had their brain activity, eye and facial muscle movements measured whilst they performed online transactions on a number of websites.

During the tests, the speed of the internet connection was throttled back to simulate the experience of a slow, unresponsive website. The findings were remarkable. Participants had to concentrate over 50% harder when using a badly performing site. It also showed that their measured ‘stress’ rose significantly.

What was all the study highlighted that users are likely too interesting was the interview feedback from participants who consistently highlighted site speed as their biggest source of frustration.

However, of most significant note to retailers, experience acute stress at two specific points in the sales cycle – searching and checking out. It would therefore make sense to focus clear KPIs and effort around optimizing these two points in the conversion funnel for speed. Clearly speed has been a topic of discussion for many years now. However a lack of traction and improvement has been hidden to some extent by the increase in speed of internet connections. Our ‘state of the nation’s website speed’ report has shown there are still huge commercial gains to be had.

Today it’s potential route of competitive advantage that is not being picked up on by boardrooms around the country. However, with the explosion in mobile usage the problem is about to get much worse. With upwards of 30% of traffic now coming from mobile, retailers have to ask the question as to why the checkout abandonment rates on mobile are over 90%?

My view is that mobile simply isn’t a great experience for most users and speed is the biggest issue. They might not want to checkout whilst sat in a traffic jam on the way to work granted but they definitely won’t waste time filling in a long form that takes 30 seconds to load. Your biggest uplift in revenue and certainly the easiest gains this year could come from improving your site speed. Firstly, benchmark your site speed today across all pages at different times. Set clear KPIs by page that are acceptable to your business and treat them with the same importance as your conversion rate. The next time someone says “just a second,” send them the bill.

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