Valentine's Day puts online flower shops to the test

Flowers, the quintessential Valentine's Day gift, have migrated to the Web, big time. And processing all the transactions being submitted by online buyers in a short period of time is putting the Internet infrastructure of Internet-based flower shops to the test.

The processing load can also try the patience of Web site users who have to wait in online queues for their turn to place orders. For example, the average time it took to load the home page of 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. over a T1 line increased from 1.77 seconds on Sunday to 4.99 seconds just one day later, according to performance measurements gathered by Keynote Systems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif.

In addition, Keynote said, the 1-800-Flowers.com site's rate of successful home page downloads dropped from 99.8 percent to 97.2 percent from one day to the next. A spokesman at 1-800-Flowers.com in Westbury, N.Y., declined to comment on the measurements beyond noting that the company has been processing tens of thousands of transactions per day.

Maintaining Web site performance while facing the kind of increased demand that 1-800-Flowers.com and rival online flower stores saw just prior to Valentine's Day can be a formidable challenge, said Neal Goldman, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. "Going from 1,000 to 100,000 orders a day, for example, gets harder in an exponential way," he said.

To illustrate the difficulty that the flower companies face, officials at FTD.com Inc. in Downers Grove, Ill., said 83 percent of the orders it gets from consumers now come via the company's Web site, with the remaining 17 percent being placed through calls to a telephone-based ordering system.

As of Tuesday, Keynote Systems reported, FTD.com was leading the pack of major online flower retailers in Web site performance. On average, it was taking 1.49 seconds for the FTD.com home page to fully display on a user's screen over a T1 line, according to Keynote's measurements.

The Web performance measurement firm Keynote Systems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif., reported that as of Tuesday, FTD.com was leading the pack, on average taking only 1.49 seconds for its home page to fully display on a user's screen over a T1 line.

FTD.com CIO Fred Johnson said the company tries to optimize site performance by using technology from Seattle-based F5 Networks Inc. to balance access requests across multiple Web servers. Web page content is cached on servers operated by Akamai Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., while FTD.com's Internet infrastructure is run on an outsourced basis by Novator Systems Ltd. in Toronto.

On a 56K bit/sec. dial-up connection, FTD.com was taking an average of 14.59 seconds to download its home page to users, according to measurements conducted by SolidSpeed Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich. SolidSpeed said it tapped into the real-life experience of some 2,000 end users by placing a small client program on their PCs.

While Keynote and SolidSpeed were in the same ballpark on many of their readings, they disagreed on the performance of T1 user access at Proflowers.com in San Diego. Keynote reported that Proflowers kept users waiting for an average of 30.8 seconds, but SolidSpeed reported T1 access times of 1.77 seconds.

Goldman said he wasn't surprised by the discrepancy given the different measurement methodologies used by Keynote and SolidSpeed. Keynote relies on fixed measurement sites that are located close to Internet service providers, while SolidSpeed's approach of going directly to user PCs "theoretically gives you more accurate measurements," he added.

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