Cutting Every Possible Second Out Of Online Purchasing

Auto-parts supplier J.C. Whitney's site was sucking wind, forcing would-be buyers to drum their fingers waiting for downloads. Now the speedier site brings in 45% of all orders.
Three years ago, less than a quarter of the sales that were logged by auto-parts supplier J.C. Whitney & Co. came from its site, which was perhaps a good thing. The home page took more than 20 seconds to download.

Whitney's technology director, Geoff Robertson, tried two approaches on the path to acceptable site performance, and they seem to have worked. Nearly half of Whitney's business now comes from online, and the download time is less than a second.

Two years ago, Robertson's staff installed Pivia Software Inc.'s Performance Server, specialized software that caches application responses based on how frequently they're sought on a site. Unlike content-caching servers, which keep frequently accessed content handy in memory, the Pivia Server has "application smarts" and knows which application results are being sought frequently, saving them to memory.

An example would be caching the results of a frequently sought combination of goods, such as car detailing decorations and mud flaps, along with their total price and a promotion appealing to buyers of the combination. Content caching, on the other hand, saves files of text and/or graphics.

In a hypothetical example, a combination of flags and other car decorations might be very popular at the J.C. Whitney site before Memorial Day for pickup trucks; after Memorial Day, oil filters and oil additives might be in high demand by meticulous car owners returning from holiday trips. In each case, one can't get the content without an app processing the combined request. Merely caching flag information or just data on oil filters doesn't save site visitors' time. The app must produce the combined content, process the total price, and perhaps offer an additional special based on the buying habits of seekers of the combination. If three parts frequently sell together, and a prospective buyer asks for their total price, the performance server supplies that result without asking the E-commerce application to add them up.

Performance Server can also recognize when one result has become out of date and needs to be discarded in favor of more frequently sought results, says marketing VP Albert Gouyet.

The Pivia app and other efficiency-improving moves cut download times to 10 seconds, Robertson says. But traffic continued to build, rising 150% from 2002 to 2003. By 2004, 3.7 million visitors per month were being recorded, and response times started creeping up again, he says.

So Robertson's staff rebuilt the site, ditching its E-commerce engine and bringing in IBM's WebSphere application server and DB2 database. He added Endeca Technologies Inc.'s consumer-oriented, guided search engine that helps a customer find a product with a general description rather than a precise name or part number.

The revamped site went live in September and once again dropped the home-page download time down to less than a second. Robertson credits the caching techniques of both WebSphere and Pivia's Performance Server. Traffic has been increasing 30% a month since then, but performance has remained below a second, he says. The Linux-based Performance Server has required little system administration or maintenance. "It has been completely maintenance free. We call it the refrigerator," he says, the reference being that refrigerators generally run nonstop with little maintenance. Whitney's Web site has gone from being an add-on business channel for its catalogue business to being "a strategic platform," he says, that brings in 45% of all orders. That means making the site a showcase for a huge and constantly changing list of auto parts, from floor mats to dome lights. Setting aside decorations and accessories, J.C. Whitney sells 3.5 million auto-part SKUs. Each has an average 10 possible uses in different makes and models, giving the site a total of 350 million applications. Pivia recently released version 4 of Performance Server, which is priced at $50,000. A remote edition sells for $20,000.

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