How Retailers Can Prepare for Tablet-Based ‘Couch Commerce’

By Lorenz Jakober

Special to the eTail Blog

It’s looking like the “Couch Commerce” trend – shopping on smartphones and tablets from the comfort of your home – is here to stay. A recent report by ComScore, Inc. found that smartphones and tablets currently drive nearly seven percent of total U.S. digital traffic. This incremental reach should not be underestimated, particularly as tablet-driven traffic quickly gains steam. Consider that iPads have just begun to account for a a higher percentage of Internet traffic than iPhones, says the ComScore study.

In fact, tablets are experiencing rapid growth as an e-commerce platform. Analysts such as Forrester’s Sucharita Mulpuru note: “On average, retailers surveyed by Forrester report that 21 percent of their mobile traffic comes from tablets, with several companies anecdotally reporting figures north of 50 percent.”

Tablet optimization

Last year, after folks had eaten their Thanksgiving turkey and settled into their couches, retailers were in for a shock. Data revealed that many retailers were not ready for the onslaught in couch commerce – as traffic from tablets spiked, so did tablet page load times.

Not specifically optimizing for tablets can be dangerous, given that tablet owners use their devices extensively at all phases of the shopping process, from conducting product and store research to comparing prices. Today’s web users are extremely sophisticated and well-connected, often toggling between their desktop PCs, smartphones and tablets. They expect exceptionally fast and reliable web experiences regardless of their mode of web access.

So what can a retailer do to target and capture this growing legion of web shoppers?

Design for the Device, and the Network it is Running On

First, while your website content should render well enough on a tablet without you having to do much to it, you need to deliver web content in a way that’s specifically tailored to the tablet experience. Many retailers hold the erroneous belief that by delivering full website content to tablets, they’re delivering a quality experience. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as any tablet user who has laboriously tried to hit a single text link on a website will tell you. If you want to effectively engage – as opposed to annoy – tablet users, important and frequently used links should be optimized for touch and spaced relatively far apart on your page

Beyond stylistic nuances, retailers need to optimize their sites for speed on tablets. Why are full websites so slow on tablets? The answer is apparent once we compare the average page size and number of HTTP requests for the Top 20 U.S. retail websites delivered to the iPhone versus the iPad. On average, sites delivered to iPads are significantly larger and establish many more HTTP requests than sites delivered to iPhones. Yet both devices operate on the same constrained wireless and mobile networks and the only major difference between the two devices is the screen size.

We know that slow, high latency mobile networks can make delivering quality mobile web experiences difficult. Yet it is clear that some organizations – across the same networks and devices – deliver exceptional performance while others struggle. To optimize your site for tablets, you need to follow some of the same rules that apply to optimizing sites for mobile phones and the wireless network: reduce “heavy” or unnecessary site content (i.e. graphics) as well as reduce the number of web connections – mobile browsers, like desktop browsers, tend to benefit from fewer connections.

Performance Optimization Techniques for Tablets

Where tablets are concerned, there are several additional performance optimization techniques you can consider to help strengthen website speed. These include the following:

Reduce “round trip” times: Every time a browser sends a request and waits for a response, your site is compromised by round-trip time (RTT) that drags performance into the sand. Because most of these round trips consist of HTTP requests/responses, it’s important to minimize these requests. You should avoid unnecessary requests and re-directs by removing re-direct chains, and using sprites to combine images into fewer files requiring fewer bytes and requests.

Shrink the payloads: Just as portion size is a key to effective dieting, controlling the sheer amount of data is crucial to reducing page load times – especially in areas where bandwidth is constrained. When it comes to delivering pages over mobile networks, you should assume that bandwidth will be low and latency high. To minimize payload size, apply techniques that allow you to create effects – such as round corners and shadows – without requiring additional image files, and optimize all images with proper formatting and compression.

Remember, “cache” is king: In the old model of website delivery, performance was driven by factors within the firewall. Today, however, JavaScript and third-parties come into play as contributors to the website your end-users experience. Website and mobile site performance is driven by the browser that integrates page sources inside and outside the firewall. Anything that increases front-end efficiencies will significantly improve the overall mobile web experience.

The best starting points are the web page’s resources such as CSS, image and JavaScript files and more that must be downloaded over the network before the page can load. Caching this content locally not only reduces network requests but also trims back the total payload of subsequent pages. To optimize content caching after the first download, apply browser caching by setting an expiry date or a maximum age in the HTTP headers that instruct the browser to load previously downloaded resources from the local disk, rather than over the network. And, leverage proxy caching that enables public caching in the HTTP headers, allowing the browser to draw resources from a nearby server instead of the more remote origin server.

As an extra tip, keep server-side response time as fast as you can. When delivering content over high latency/low bandwidth mobile networks you have to optimize server-side delivery to get more legroom for dealing with slower networks. Looking at the application delivery chain, which starts at the end user and goes all the way back to the server-side, it becomes clear that any time we lose on the server cannot be compensated by upstream optimization. If the backend servers and infrastructure are slow – no matter how optimized the site is from a front-end perspective – the site will feel slow to the end user.


Sure, tablet shoppers represent a major opportunity. But with great opportunity comes great danger, meaning that websites that are slow for tablet users and don’t meet their performance expectations, will result in lost customers and revenues. In 2009, 58 percent of all mobile users expected websites to load as fast or faster on their mobile phones than on their PCs. In 2011, that number grew dramatically, with 71 percent demanding as good or better performance, according to a consumer survey conducted by Equation Research for CompuWare.

On the flip side, there are tremendous benefits to be gained from even incremental speed increases. According to Amazon, every 100 milliseconds in page load time improvement supports a one percent increase in revenue. Websites that are slow and don’t meet end-users’ performance expectations will result in lost customers and revenue.

Robert Hamilton from the Google Mobile team sums it up nicely: “This link between increased usage and a faster user experience – be it search or mobile Gmail – reinforces something we at Google have known for a long time: fast is better than slow.”

Some retailers have caught on to this. For example, eBay has publicly touted a ‘tablet optimized site’ that is built with speed and a better user experience in mind. eBay also expects $5 billion in mobile sales in 2011.

If retailers want to maximize e-commerce revenues from tablets they must first deliver fast, high-quality, optimized web experiences to their tablet customers.

Lorenz Jakober is the Product Marketing Manager for Mobile Solutions at Compuware, a technology performance company providing IT software, services and best practices to help deliver peak performance for global technologies.