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Mobile acceleration speeds conversion rates for retailer MandM Direct

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman March 19, 2014
At the online discount fashion retailer, a responsive redesign combined with a hefty dose of mobile acceleration technology has had a significant effect on mobile and tablet conversion rates, says IT director Graham Benson.

Online discount fashion retailer MandM Direct is up for sale, it was announced this week. And just like the company’s customers, potential buyers with £80 million ($133 million) to spare can check out the website from any computing device that suits them and still be sure of a consistent and speedy experience.

What this consistency and speed will do for the conversion rates of would-be acquirers of MandM Direct is anyone’s guess right now. But conversion rates among customers using mobile phones and tablets are up and bounce rates down “significantly”, thanks to a 2013 reengineering of the online retailer’s website along responsive web design lines, and the implementation of mobile website delivery technology from Akamai, according to MandM Direct IT director Graham Benson.

“In my opinion, a lot of retailers build mobile and tablet apps to compensate for the fact that they simply can’t deliver an optimised web experience on mobile phones,” says the forthright Benson.

Until last year, MandM Direct took the a similar tack, with separate platforms for desktops, mobile and tablets. But this February, Benson turned off the MandM Direct iPhone app for the last time.

The journey to that point began some nine months ago, he explains. He and his team had already decided that responsive web design would enable them to deliver a consistent user experience and consistent functionality across the largest range of devices - and, at the same time, give the MandM Direct IT team just one codebase to manage.

Responsive web design is a smart idea that has quickly gone mainstream as the number of mobile devices in use has soared and their visits to websites have started to outstrip those from desktop PCs. In short, it proposes that the design of a website should respond to the device accessing it, based on that device’s screen size, screen resolution, operating platform and orientation.

Performance concerns

But while Benson saw how responsive web design could solve some of MandM Direct’s challenges with maintaining different sites and apps for customers using different devices, he still had concerns over performance: “The challenge with putting in place a single site to fit all devices is that mobile pages might still take a long time to load. While responsive design could give us a device-agnostic site that repurposed each page to fit the device accessing it, we would still be faced with a page-load problem.”

Enter Akamai Aqua Ion, a mobile-specific delivery platform launched by the content delivery network (CDN) provider in 2012. At a high level, Akamai’s services work on the basis of taking website operators’ most frequently accessed web content and pages and caching them on its own network of high-speed servers, scattered around the world. This effectively moves that content closer to customers, delivering a hefty performance boost.

Graham Benson M&M
Graham Benson

With Akamai Aqua Ion, an extra layer of mobile-specific acceleration technology is added so that, when an end user’s mobile browser makes a content request, it is quickly routed to the server closest to that user’s nearest IP gateway or, in the case of non-wifi connections, their nearest mobile network gateway.

For MandM Direct, Akamai Aqua Ion has almost halved the time it takes mobile pages to download to a customer’s device on non-wifi connections, according to Benson. “Akamai gave us the additional guarantee we needed to forge ahead with our responsive design plan.”

Speaking at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Omni-Channel Retailing conference in London in March, MandM Direct CEO Jonathon Brown (a former head of online at department store chain John Lewis and DIY store B&Q) put firmer figures on the improvements the company’s seen: “It’s working,” he said. “Tablet conversion is up 50% year-on-year. Mobile conversion is up more than that. Tablet conversion is about a point behind desktop.”

This is an issue that many retailers still have to get to grips with, according to Benson. “Mobile as a percentage of overall traffic has outstripped most predictions - and I believe it will continue to do so. But a lot of otherwise good sites continue to run slow on mobile devices, because too many retailers focus on the application end of things and not enough on the infrastructure behind it.”

And at a time when customers are increasingly reluctant to ‘click and wait’ when they’re just itching to make a purchase, he says, that’s a risky game for retailers to play.

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