The retail landscape is more crowded than ever. Nearly every day, a new brand pops up seeking consumer attention and buy-in across the globe, and this intense competition has fostered some questionable practices in the world of digital advertising. Hungry for impressions, retailers and online brands have invested billions into powerful advertising technology with the ability to collect very personal information on each customer in order to deliver them extremely, almost dangerously, targeted ads.
As the retail experience shifts away from brick-and-mortar stores and hones in on e-commerce, retailers of all sizes will continue to spend egregious amounts to capture consumer sentiment. Take Black Friday 2019: Consumers spent $7.4 billion online, and because this shopping holiday is so crucial for hitting end-of-year sales numbers, brands are increasingly challenged to optimize online customer experience in a way that not only brings customers to their website, but keeps them coming back.
Besides spending more money on digital advertising, increasing potential reach, retailers are also bulking up their ad tech stacks. While online trackers can absolutely be helpful to retailers, aiding their ability to deliver a more personalized shopping experience to customers, mismanaged and extensive tracking technologies can cause major complications on their websites — effectively bloating the back end and resulting in longer load times on the front end.
The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Online Tracking
In research that quantifies the impact of third-party trackers on select retailer websites, we found several suffered from frivolous trackers that were negatively impacting customer experiences. Websites from Everlane to Foot Locker to Urban Outfitters were some of the biggest offenders (with average load times of 7.8, 9.4, and 6.8 seconds, respectively), and trackers accounted for the bulk of those times — around 5 seconds to 6 seconds each. A recent study found that 40 percent of users will abandon a site that takes more than three seconds to load, potentially losing retailers hundreds and thousands, if not millions, in potential revenue.
For example, a cost-benefit analysis of Macy’s found that the website housed 42 piggybacked trackers — i.e., trackers that are let on the site not by direct implementation, but through another tracker, often out of the website owner’s control. Piggybacked trackers can be harmful for both the retailer and the consumer for the same reasons. They open up risk under an assumption that retailers might not have control over their own domain, creating technical overhead and damaging audience trust, while consumers receive a shopping experience that they didn’t sign up for.
Another example we investigated was Sears’ website. Nearly all trackers present remained active after the original page finished loading, causing a “glitchy” experience that included scrolling delays and forms that were slow to respond, severely impacting the user experience. Any number of website glitches like these are known to frustrate consumers and send them running, or clicking, to another site desperate to make their desired purchase.
Online Tracking Affects the Bottom Line
In order for retailers to fully reap as much revenue as possible from their community of online shoppers, they must educate themselves about the hidden costs of their website’s digital advertising technology, and ultimately how it impacts customer experience. Major brands are spending millions on technologies they might think will allow them to acquire new customers, or encourage recurring ones to come back, but they're not addressing the consequences of how ad tech could actually be driving away conversions via poor site performance.
With the holiday season behind us and a new year ahead, it would bode well for retailers to set a resolution to get in shape and trim their tracker fat, so to speak. Research has confirmed that retailers need to better understand their tracker ecosystems through informed cost-benefit analysis. This will not only result in a superior shopping experiences, but also improved bottom lines.
Jeremy Tillman is the president of Ghostery, a browser extension that makes consumers’ web browsing experiences faster, cleaner and safer by detecting and blocking thousands of third-party data-tracking technologies.