Case Study: Wine.com

"When we researched front-end optimization vendors, Strangeloop was by far the leading contender. Their Site Optimizer is the only product that can handle enterprise scale via appliance or cloud, and they are the only company with experience in accelerating global sites."

-- Geoffrey Smalling, CTO, Wine.com

Wine.com has been ranked the #1 online wine retailer for seven years in a row by Internet Retailer Magazine. With more than a million registered users and an inventory of 13,000+ products, the company has seen huge growth in the past year alone. In 2011, the company shipped more than two million bottles of wine, a 35% increase over the previous year.

In addition to offering wine and wine-related gifts and accessories, the website houses a growing online community of nearly 40,000 members who provide customer reviews and ratings, as well as create and share personal wine lists.

Challenge: Deliver dynamic, content-rich pages (particularly to older browsers) in less than 3 seconds -- without breaking the bank.

“Performance has been a core focus of mine from day one,” says Geoffrey Smalling, CTO at Wine.com. “Part of our transaction process includes inviting customers to give us feedback immediately after their purchase. Our CEO personally reviews all this feedback, and would forward every complaint about slowness to me. There were a lot of complaints.”

Many of Wine.com’s performance pains were common to modern e-commerce sites. The company needed to serve content-rich pages to satisfy customer demand for an interactive online experience. But this enriched experience came at a cost. A typical web page easily contained 120 objects, and, as Mr. Smalling states, “All those images and rich DHTML/Ajax features take time to transfer over the network and render.”

Wine.com was also constrained by the fact that many of its visitors were using dated browsers. “It took us a while to pinpoint this issue, but we eventually realized that a number of our highest-spending customers work in the financial services sector, and they were placing orders from work. Many of these customers were restricted to using Internet Explorer 6 and 7, which our site was not optimized for. As a result, these people were getting really sluggish pages.”

This problem was compounded by the fact that Wine.com’s datacenter is housed on the west coast, while a significant portion of its customer base lives on the east coast. Moving that payload across the country resulted in pages that loaded, at best, in about four seconds.

While some companies would consider four seconds a performance success, Wine.com knew this wasn’t a laurel to rest upon. Their goal was under three seconds. “A four-second download was acceptable at one time, but today it’s far too slow, given advancements in computer technology and growing consumer expectations,” says Mr. Smalling. “Getting closer to two seconds was an ambitious goal, but we had to reach it or lose potential customers, especially first-time visitors."

Wine.com’s performance epiphany came in 2009, when the company redesigned its home page. “We were all very excited about this new design. It offered visitors more information, more streamlined navigation, and it looked great. We thought we were offering a richer experience, but it ended up really hurting our conversion rate.”

To pinpoint the problem, the company conducted an A/B test, splitting the site’s traffic so that half its visitors were served a “postage stamp” version of the home page and the other half was served the rich new home page. The postage stamp version was a barebones page with three buttons, few images, and limited copy. The Wine.com team was shocked to learn that the postage stamp version vastly outperformed the rich page, delivering a substantial increase in conversions.

Wine.com home pages

“That was our ‘aha’ moment, when we realized that customers care more about speed than they care about flashy design,” says Mr. Smalling. “After that, we spent a lot of time manually optimizing the rich home page and got it close to the speed of the postage stamp page. As we did this, we saw our conversions climb back up. That’s when we knew we had to invest more energy in performance across our entire site.”

Over the next few years, Wine.com’s small team of developers tuned the site’s performance by hand, but they quickly realized they did not have sufficient in-house resources to hit their target of sub 3-second load times for every page of the site.

“Not only do we serve more than 13,000 product pages in a year, we also have to serve eight different versions of each page, due to the complex legal stipulations for shipping wine to various states,” explains Mr. Smalling. “When a visitor comes to our site and clicks on a product link, our site has to scan the legal requirements for that person’s state, dig up the content that correlates to their state’s shipping laws, then serve a fully tailored page -- all in less than three seconds.”

Solution: The Strangeloop Site Optimizer appliance is an integral part of Wine.com's performance toolkit.

With a clear understanding of their challenges -- serving eight versions of each content-rich page across the country to customers using older browsers -- the team at Wine.com knew they had their work cut out for them when it came to finding a solution.

“When we started our search for a performance solution, Strangeloop immediately stood out from the crowd,” says Mr. Smalling. “Being able to optimize for all browsers and operating systems, consistently and securely, is an impressive claim. We knew that if a single product could do all that for us at an affordable cost, that would be a fantastic achievement.”

Wine.com completed their Site Optimizer implementation just in time for the 2010 holiday shopping season, and they saw immediate dramatic improvement in all the metrics they cared about.

Benefits: Faster pages, customized optimization techniques, complements other performance solutions

Pages load up to 45% faster across all browsers
“Site Optimizer does exactly what it says it does: it optimizes for every single browser and operating system. It’s a great feeling to invest in a solution that actually delivers on its promise.”

Average page load (by browser) for all Wine.com by real users [February 2012]

Customized optimization rules
“Our site is probably more complicated than most e-commerce sites because of the extremely complex regulations that govern where and how we can ship our products. These regulations are constantly changing, which has an effect on every page of our site. A cookie-cutter solution would never work for us. Strangeloop’s customer service was superb throughout the entire implementation process, developing custom optimizations based on our unique, regulated business.”

Mitigates the impact of ever-growing pages
For e-commerce sites, page growth is an inevitable fact of life. “It’s an ongoing effort to get to that two-second goal. For every two steps forward, my marketing team comes up with new ideas, new dynamic content, and new tools that take us a step back. Site Optimizer definitely helps mitigate this.”

Complements other performance solutions
“There’s no single magic bullet for making pages faster,” says Mr. Smalling. “Anyone who tells you there is does not have a deep understanding of the myriad issues that affect performance. Performance tuning requires a multi-tiered approach. The Strangeloop Site Optimizer is an essential component in our site’s performance toolkit, alongside our dynamic site accelerator (DSA) and in-house performance engineers.”

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