Robert Castley, principal engineer at Catchpoint, considers Debenhams' plans to put mobile at the centre of its turnaround plans.
Retail is a fiercely competitive battle for business. Popular, historic brand names have fallen in recent years as consumer shopping habits have changed. Having bold and creative responses to dynamic market conditions is a prerequisite for survival, let alone success. So, it is unsurprising that department store giant Debenhams, which is reporting a drop in profits, recently unveiled a turnaround strategy for its retail business.
While the headlines focused on the store closure review, what I found most interesting was how chief executive Sergio Bucher set out a positive future for the business as “a destination for social shopping, with mobile the unifying platform for interacting with our customers.”
This makes total sense as consumer behaviour changes, but the foundations for Debenhams to build this new future for the business on mobile appear shaky and need serious attention. This is according to the analysis that we did of how shoppers currently experience Debenhams’ mobile site.
When the mobile site was monitored over a two-day period around the time of the announcement last week, the results revealed erratic performance. The main issue is that the mobile version of the Debenhams home page contains too many items – around 250 – and many of them are up to 3MB in size (primarily images which can be optimized).
This means the site takes longer to download onto a mobile than the sites of competitors like House of Fraser, John Lewis and Next. On many times over the monitoring period, a mobile shopper visiting the Debenhams site would have had to download almost three times as much data (8-10MB) than the sites of these competitors, which consistently required mobile visitors to download the same relatively low amount of data (3-4MB).
Debenhams has got the right strategy to turn around the business. Smartphones are dominating online retail and can be a powerful element in an omnichannel strategy to drive customers into bricks and mortar stores. But, it looks like the journey to the social selling scenario painted by the CEO is not starting well and could be a longer, bumpier one unless some correcting manoeuvres are made.
For example, it seems Debenhams has not optimised its mobile site at all. The amount of data customers are required to download has a detrimental impact on performance. The mobile site is exactly the same size as Debenham’s desktop site which is heavy, and is not doing well against the performance of their competitors’ mobile sites.
In fact, the desktop experience is not much better. For the reporting period November 2016 – January 2017, which includes major shopping events such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Boxing Day, Debenhams’ homepage took 5.6 seconds to fully load so that a customer can start shopping, which is significantly longer than the industry standard of between three and four seconds.
Let’s hope with this announcement Debenhams makes the investments it needs to overhaul its mobile strategy and thinks more carefully about how its content and services are optimized for mobile. Optimising images for mobile and looking at how the number of objects that need to be downloaded can be minimised are fundamental steps.
There are many other optimization techniques that Debenhams could explore, but considering adaptive web design may be the best option. While adaptive will be more difficult to implement, it will deliver a better quality experience for end users. It will enable Debenhams to retain the stickiness and loyalty of its customers as they will be less likely to have to wait ages for content to load.
Crucial to this will be how the store maintains full visibility of whether the digital retail experience is consistently good, irrespective of whether customers are engaging with Debenhams via their smartphone, tablet or PC.
This means checking how third-party apps and content are affecting load times, especially when traffic is peaking. Without continuous monitoring and analysis of the digital experience, Debenhams could risk driving blind in its turnaround journey and will find it harder, if not impossible, to truly unify how customers interact with them.
Robert Castley is principal engineer at Catchpoint