Some sellers trip in Web's holiday rush

Online shopping reached record levels this holiday season, but some retailers handled the increased traffic better than others.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. struggled to manage its online traffic despite revamping its Web site last fall, according to Keynote Systems Inc., which issued its final 2003 weekly report card on 11 retailers' online shopping performance Dec. 30.


In the week of Dec. 22, the Web site of the retailer failed to complete a purchase 5.31 percent of the time. The average failure rate that week for the 11 retailers was 2.67 percent, the best overall score of the season.

The most likely reason for the improvement is that fewer people shop online the closer it gets to Christmas, said Roopak Patel, senior Internet analyst for Keynote, a San Mateo, Calif., company that measures the performance of retailers' Web sites.


But even a failure rate of only 2 percent or 3 percent can add up for a retailer.

Online retail spending totaled $11.7 billion from Nov. 1 through Friday, a 29 percent jump from the same period in 2002, according to ComScore Networks, a Chicago-based tracker of consumer behavior on the Internet. That excludes travel purchases and auctions.

If an average failure rate of 2.67 percent were applied to that figure, retailers would be losing out on $312.4 million in sales over that time frame.

Keynote defines failures as those situations in which any Web page in the transaction downloads only partly or downloading takes longer than 12 seconds a page on average.

The top performers in the week of Dec. 22 were the Eddie Bauer unit of Spiegel Inc. and Target Corp., which had failure rates of 0.27 and 0.53 percent, respectively.

The nadir of the season for online retailers came the week of Dec. 1, the post-Thanksgiving shopping period when the average failure rate was 6.32 percent.

The worst failure rates that week belonged to J.C. Penney Co. and Sears, which couldn't complete purchases 18.2 percent and 17.3 percent of the time, respectively. Eddie Bauer also was tops that week, with a failure rate of only 0.27 percent.

Sears points out that as the holiday season wore on, it narrowed the failure-rate gap compared with other retailers.


"We're not far off on the success rate," spokesman Willy Medina said Wednesday. "The real proof is sales are up. People are responding to the site."

Indeed, online sales for Sears in 2003 are expected to be up about 40 percent over last year. According to the National Retail Federation, over the first three weeks of the holiday shopping season, 49 percent of merchants saw sales increase more than 35 percent compared with the same period in 2002.

"We're pleased with the response that people have had to," Medina said.

In September, Sears redesigned its Web site to include expanded product information, and faster and easier navigation, enabling consumers to browse and buy with fewer clicks. The new architecture also included top and side navigation bars.

"There will be continued improvement in the coming year," Medina said.

But even though Sears improved its success rates as the holiday season wore on, it still ended up ahead of only L.L. Bean and Best Buy Co. Inc. for the week of Dec. 22, the last week of the shopping season.


Also coming up short in three out of four weeks was OfficeMax Inc. The office supplies retailer was recently bought by Boise Office Solutions, a unit of Boise Cascade Corp. of Boise, Idaho.

Keystone's Patel said an acceptable success rate is in the eye of the beholder.

"Some are accepting of an 80 percent success rate. It gives them sufficient margins and enough return on their investment," Patel said. "Others may say it's worth it to invest further and increase their success rate to 99 percent because their market is more competitive."

It was the first year that Keystone tracked the 11 retailers' online performance.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.