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Faulty shopping cart software is leaving consumers stranded at the checkout of many UK websites.

The majority of shopping carts provide consumers with an unpredictable and unsatisfactory experience - making Web shopping a lottery, according to a survey by web testing specialist SciVisum out this week. SciVisum found that 80 per cent of websites perform inconsistently with widely varying response times, timeouts and errors - leaving consumers at best wondering what to do next and at worst unable to complete their purchase successfully.

These shortcomings might potentially cost e-retailers millions in lost sales. SciVisum reckons that bad website performance will cost merchants at least £225m in 2004 if they don't get their act together.

Hell in a shopping cart

The SciVisum Ecommerce Performance Study 2004 tested the online buying process, specifically the 'add to cart/basket' function, of the web sites of more than 50 of the UK's leading e-retailers for a period of four weeks during April 2004. It also identified daily and weekly trends in online shopping and industry wide peak shopping times for e-consumers.

The testing showed that the 'add to cart/basket' step failed to function correctly in more than one in 100 cases. SciVisum reckons this is just the tip of the iceberg, since consumers typically buy 2/3 items at a time and perform multiple steps to complete a purchase, so the true number of consumers let down will be more than one in 20.

HTTP errors (causing more serious problems for consumers) rather than response time failures were the major cause for shopping cart malfunctions during the study. This contrasts with the common misperception that slow page delivery and timeouts occur more commonly than HTTP failures.

Saints and sinners

One in five carts tested did not function for 12 or more hours a month and over three quarters failed to meet the standard service level of availability of 99.9 per cent uptime. A leading DIY chain had shopping carts that failed to work for more than four days during the study, making it the worst performer.

Deri Jones, chief executive of SciVisum, said: "UK ecommerce sites are slapping customers in the face, rather than shaking them by the hand. Turning consumers away once they have made the decision to buy is commercial suicide. Although specific steps of a transaction may fail to complete, in most cases the website itself is still functioning, so it is likely that many online managers are completely unaware of the problems."

Jones argued that operators need to "stress test" the functionality on their web sites, down to the transactional level to properly gauge performance. "In ecommerce every transaction counts. It's the sporadic and unpredictable performance of web sites that is the most worrying to users," he added.

Only 20 per cent of shopping carts were able to handle daily and weekly traffic patterns consistently. The best performers included John Lewis, Waitrose Direct Wines, Orange, Figleaves and WHSmith.

James Roper, chief executive of IMRG (Interactive Media In Retail group), commented: "20 million UK shoppers are expected to spend £17bn online this year. Many UK e-retailers have made significant strides in improving consumer experience, and we are not surprised that most of the best are IMRG Members.

"But the appalling state of other retailers' web services is both shocking and completely unacceptable; it blights our industry, and we are grateful to SciVisum for revealing it," he added. ®

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SciVisum eCommerce Performance Report 2004

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