Tower Isn't Singing Blues After Site Relaunch

Kevin Ertell has discovered a simple formula that applies to Tower Records' Internet-commerce site: Every time the Internet technologies manager improves the site's performance, sales rise immediately.

Tower Records, a traditional bricks-and-mortar music store, went online four years ago. But to keep customers returning to the site and to avoid being overrun by the likes of CDNow, Amazon and others, the company relaunched in June, giving the site a new look and feel, added personalization, improved order tracking and a better search engine, according to Ertell. now offers sales of new, used and out-of-print music CDs, as well as reviews, columns, a create-your-own CD offering and even a "voyeur" service that performs an automatic query of the site's database to let potential customers know what other shoppers are buying.

With so many connections being made to the site's Informix database from its Windows NT Web servers, Ertell needed to streamline the connection between the two. For the relaunch, Ertell selected Microsoft Site Server 3.0 as the tool for building a stronger, more interactive Web site and chose Merant's DataDirect technology to meet's data-integration needs.

"The ODBC driver connection to the database was a bottleneck for us. And with every page being dynamic, every page had to use that connection. Using the Merant ODBC removed that bottleneck so it's not an issue anymore," Ertell says.

"The connection is so quick in running the queries [now] that the queries take longer than the connection does."

With each new feature and the growing number of users, Ertell keeps a constant vigil to maintain site performance.

"The most important [issue], we always find, is keeping performance [at] top level. And that changes all the time as we get more and more customers," Ertell says.

"It's a question of constantly tweaking the queries to the database, adding servers, adding memory to the servers, and reconfiguring the network," Ertell says.

But the rewards have been readily apparent.

"Every time we do something like that to increase performance, sales go up immediately," Ertell adds.

Since the relaunch, Tower's site has experienced a 35 percent increase in performance measured in database query times, and online sales have quadrupled since August, according to Ertell.

"The site reliability and database availability are critical to the bottom line of Tower Records. We can't afford for a customer to leave our Web site for a competitor's site because of performance reliability or availability," Ertell says. "And since every page on our site accesses our back-end Informix database, the Merant technology is quite vital to our bottom line."

The company intends to maintain its rapid pace of adopting new features, including a complete catalog of downloadable Liquid Audio songs. (Liquid Audio is a proprietary compression technology.) And Ertell says work to improve the site's search engine is ongoing.

"We found that [the search engine] is the most popular section of our site," Ertell says.

But Ertell maintains his mantra of performance being key to the site.

"When you go out to buy a house or [plan the site of] a physical store, the mantra is always 'location, location, location.' I've found that online, location isn't the issue; the issue is 'performance, performance, performance,'" Ertell says. "It makes all the difference in the world if you can do things quickly."

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