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Content delivery innovation improves user experience for e-tailer

WorldStores Group, the owner of a number of online home and lifestyle retail brands, has transformed its customer experience with enhanced content delivery capabilities from Instart Logic

Online retail empire WorldStores Group has realised a 20% improvement in the performance of its customer-facing websites and a 96% reduction in cyber attacks after ditching a traditional content delivery network (CDN) in favour of a new approach to application delivery and security, with the help of supplier Instart Logic.

WorldStores – which has been owned by Dunelm since November 2016 – was founded in 2008 with the objective of disrupting the online market for furniture and homewares. Besides its flagship WorldStores brand, it also owns baby and childcare retailer Kiddicare and a members-only lifestyle concept called Achica.

Over the years, it has built up a tightly-integrated supply chain model that enables it to offer a competitive catalogue from multiple suppliers with extremely short lead times. This was something other online furniture retailers had struggled with due to the bulky nature of much of the product making it harder to ship reliably to customers, among other things.

However, WorldStores’ success was beginning to impact the performance of its various websites, according to chief technology officer Nick Benjamin. Between around 2012 and 2015, the sites were becoming much slower by a number of measurements.

“This was through a combination of things, such as bloated, image-heavy sites. Our performance was going backwards and the internet was getting faster,” said Benjamin.

At the same time, Benjamin told Computer Weekly, mobile traffic was increasing fast. “Traffic from most of our sites was 50% mobile, mobile revenues were our fastest growing, and our sites were not performing well on mobile devices,” he said.

The third and final IT challenge WorldStores faced was a significant escalation in the volume of cyber attacks against its properties, taking the form of both slower protocol and larger volumetric attacks, with which it had very little ability to deal.

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With improving the mobile experience for WorldStores’ 45 million annual visitors in mind, Benjamin began to explore the available solutions – including reassessing the group’s incumbent CDN supplier. However, he quickly found the incumbent was unable to meet the demands of scale WorldStores needed.

This led to an open tender which brought Benjamin to Instart Logic, a rapidly-growing supplier of solutions designed to increment website performance on both desktop and mobile devices.

Instart Logic approaches the concept of content delivery networks (CDNs) in a fundamentally different way to market leaders such as Akamai, Edgecast and Limelight, all of which it believes follow a fundamentally similar – and out of date – approach, said Andrew Bartlam, vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Indeed, the supplier does not bill itself as a CDN provider, but rather a supplier of “endpoint-aware application delivery solutions”. In practice, this boils down improving site performance by sitting on the user’s device – using a tiny JavaScript injection into their browser when they first access the site – as opposed to speeding up website delivery by having multiple points of presence (PoPs) with cached versions of the website hosted there.

“That JavaScript injection makes us unique,” said Bartlam. “It allows us at a very high level to look at everything on the page as a component, and then apply machine learning to optimise the delivery of every single piece of the page to get it to the user faster. Ultimately, that means the user gets a better experience because they get the data faster.

“In the e-commerce world, speed and performance is a strong driver towards increased convergence across web and mobile – when you get a decent customer experience at a decent speed, you feel more joined up to the e-commerce initiative,” he said.

Trialling the new software

For WorldStores, it was critical to be able to test and benchmark the new software, so it installed Instart Logic’s software on a trial basis on one of its sites, and negotiated dedicated resource to assist through the process.

“As part of the on-boarding, we had someone who was dedicated to us, and the support team operates 24-7. We had people who were familiar with our account and configuration, and could support us when we had questions,” said Benjamin.

Since installing Instart Logic’s technology across its trading websites, Benjamin said WorldStores has noticed a number of improvements over the previous incumbent.

“As a user I think you’d notice substantial improvements on mobile, with main calls to action such as scaffold and header components appearing quicker, and being able to interact with documents rather than waiting for a full page to load,” he said.

Based on Instart Logic’s wider experience in the field, Bartlam said there were a number of reasons why users might be alert to such apparently minor changes.

“There are a couple of things to consider from an emotional attachment perspective. When you’re sitting in your office with a fast Wi-Fi connection you wouldn’t notice the difference, but when you’re sitting on a train or in a pub trying to access a site, you see the blue bar fill up halfway and go ‘come on, come on, what’s happening?’, and drop offline,” he said.

“That’s one thing we strongly mitigate against, because when you look at a website you get a better emotional reaction when you see something happening – it may not be fully loaded, but you’re getting something back rather than an hourglass or a spinning beach ball, so you stay and watch.”

Measuring Instart Logic’s impact

From WorldStores’ perspective, Benjamin said it was harder to measure the impact of incorporating the new technology into its websites on the group’s overall performance because the company had been seeing underlying market growth even without it, and other unrelated factors such as consumer retrenchment after the Brexit vote needed to be taken into consideration.

However, based on more technical measurements such as time to document interactive, the group has seen an 80% improvement since rolling out Instart Logic, while pages loading with errors have halved compared to the previous incumbent.

In addition to this, Instart Logic’s AppShield Security Suite, which provides web application firewalls and distributed denial of service (DDoS) protection, has almost completely eliminated cyber attacks on WorldStores’ properties. These are down by 98% at the time of writing, the company claimed.

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