Which websites have lost or gained the most visitors in the past year? Charlotte Hardie considers the usefulness of unique visitor numbers analysis

Ever wondered which of your competitors is enjoying a surge in website traffic and which are battling to keep the clicks coming? Well read on.

From monitoring the internet activity of more than 200,000 online users, competitive intelligence firm Compete has provided Retail Week with the lowdown on the winners and losers in terms of unique visitors.

Before retailers scrutinise these findings, compare them to their own exact figures, inundate Retail Week’s offices with protestations about their businesses’ position on (or absence from) the list, these are directional results derived from a panel of shoppers. Some such as price comparison sites or aggregators are also on the periphery of what some might consider retail websites, but they all either work with or have an impact on core etail offerings.

Of course, these findings only summarise the growth of unique visitors. They don’t reflect subsequent conversion rates or indeed a growth or decline in an online business’ overall sales or profitability – the latter being the ultimate indicator of online success.

But as Google head of retail Peter Fitzgerald says: “Those businesses that are good at getting themselves in front of people online are the stronger ones.”

ECommera co-founder Michael Ross backs this up: “Traffic growth is an outcome because there’s not a recipe for success, but businesses that do less well aren’t good at acquiring and retaining customers.”

Figure it out

Unique visitor figures can indicate several factors; the growing or sliding popularity of a brand, an increase or decrease in consumer demand within that sector, or the amount of marketing activity undertaken – more on that later. Lower uniques can also reflect increased competition or the fact that a retailer needs to do more around customer retention. Practicology chief executive Martin Newman says: “They might not be giving the consumer reasons to come back, such as a loyalty programme or other incentives.”

BrandAlley tops the list of fastest-growing retailers for July 2011 versus July 2010, and is second in the list for the average monthly difference over the 12 months to July 2011.

Ultimately, says, BrandAlley chief executive Rob Feldmann: “Of course uniques don’t guarantee a profitable business, but from our perspective it shows we’re doing things the right way. Uniques show the power of your brand.”

Before analysing the trends that emerge, there are several factors to bear in mind that will inevitably skew the results. Firstly, the findings are based on UK data that doesn’t take into account the growth of retailers’ international online businesses – Asos, for instance, is currently experiencing a significant amount of international traffic growth. Secondly, every retailer is starting from a different base. It’s easier to increase the number of your unique visitors if you had relatively few to start with than it would be if you’re a household name such as Marks & Spencer or Next. What’s more, there are other factors such as website launches (Best Buy), relaunches (H&M), administrations (Focus DIY) and concerted marketing drives (Boohoo.com), which also affect the results.

So taking into account all of the above, what can be deduced? One notable trend is the plethora of fashion players among those enjoying a heady growth in uniques. Fitzgerald says Google is witnessing a strong growth in online searches for fashion and footwear, adding: “You could argue that it was previously underserved online.”

House of Fraser ecommerce director Andy Harding backs this up, attributing the growth in uniques in part to fashion playing catch up. Even as recently as five years ago, many in the fashion world were sceptical about the web. “I think that in the past online fashion struggled because people’s perceptions help them back. Fashion retailers were scared about this early on,” he says.

Equally, just as more and more people’s eyes are opened to the ease of buying clothes online, the websites are becoming ever more exciting. As Compete client services director John Thekanady says: “Online fashion is an innovative sector and many of the fashion sites are now very sophisticated.”

Newman says the fact that good fashion propositions are driving much of the growth is in part caused by the narrowing of the gaps in the experience between buying fashion online and offline. He adds that in general, technologies such as augmented reality – which involves superimposing 3D objects onto video or pictures – are “creating a much better online experience for buying fashion”.

Another notable trend is the plethora of electricals retail sites on the figures for declining unique visitors. Dixons, maplin, ebuyer, Pixmania and Misco.co.uk all crop up. Appliancesonline, however, appears in the fastest-growing tables, reflecting perhaps consumer demand for an online bargain. This indicates the extent to which the electricals sector is struggling in the downturn, but also the extent to which people are tempted by the lure of low prices on hard goods online.

Ross sums it up: “Electricals is not a happy place. They’re all struggling and they’re all looking to cut costs, and that will mean less marketing and less traffic, so it becomes a vicious circle.”

Media and entertainment websites also appear to be experiencing a collective slide in the number of people visiting their sites. Half of those in the fastest declining retail sites for July 2010 versus July 2011 fall into this category; Lovefilm, HMV, Play.com, Gamestation and Waterstone’s. Meanwhile Asda-entertainment.co.uk tops the list of the fastest-declining sites for April vs July 2011. Newman believes that the prevalence of electrical and entertainment websites is partly caused both by increased competition and less consumer demand, adding that a broadening of product offer at major online players such Amazon further drains market share and traffic from other sites.

Given the continued tough trading and the consumers’ ever-present desire for value, it might initially seem strange that value retailers Aldi and Lidl have experienced falls in online traffic.

Kantar Worldpanel figures last month revealed that both retailers have continued their double-digit growth and now account for 6% of market share between them. However, neither site is transactional. Newman says: “The fall is probably owing to the fact that their sites are dreadful, they have a very poor customer experience, and you can’t buy online from them either.”

The impact of marketing

So how much does this growth or decline in unique visitors boil down to the amount of online marketing that a retailer has chosen to deploy, and the efficiency and skill with which they have done it? After all, Fitzgerald says around a third of retail web traffic comes from search engines.

Harding says House of Fraser’s online marketing spend has undoubtedly increased. He attributes the growth in numbers to three factors; a better use and understanding of the online marketing tools available, the skill set of the retailer’s online team, and improvements in its web usability.

But, interestingly, says Feldmann: “If anything, BrandAlley is actually spending less on online marketing than we were a year ago.” While it does use tools such as pay per click and display, “our focus is on keeping customers happy and keeping them spending”. He points to the fact that 100,000 of its members have recommended a friend on its site. “It’s not just about spending to acquire those new customers,” he says.

Waitrose is an interesting example of how much online marketing might influence the results. The grocer emerged in the table for the fastest declining unique visitor figures for the three months to July. Waitrose ecommerce director Robin Phillips says the website continues to see a growth in unique visitors year on year, but it did experience a modest slowing in the rate of growth in the early summer ahead of the launch of Waitrose.com into London.

“At the time there was an expected increase in marketing activity among other grocers offering online delivery,” he says, adding that since August, it has seen the number of unique visitors grow again.

Moreover, Kantar’s Worldpanel data – which records actual sales via its panel scanning products bought online – shows that for the 52 weeks to September 4, 2011, Waitrose.com was the fastest-growing online grocery retailer in terms of overall online grocery growth. This indicates the strength of Waitrose’s online proposition – despite a temporary decline in uniques it has recorded a significant sales increase.

Generally, says Newman: “While you would assume that lower uniques is a bad thing, in some cases retailers might be implementing more effective marketing that, while it drives less traffic, the traffic actually converts better, so they’re cutting out wasted spend.”

While indicative of many trends, looking at unique visitors as a standalone metric can be deceiving. As Harding says: “I could spend millions on poor quality traffic and not deliver returns in terms of sales.”

Phillips says that the cost of acquiring customers through established marketing channels such as paid search has increased. “To ensure we’re getting full value from our own marketing spend, we’re focusing on the whole customer journey rather than just acquisition,” he says. “As we increase the number of digital touch points for our customers to interact with us, measuring the volume of traffic on our website will not give an accurate picture of the success of our digital engagement strategy.”

He adds that Waitrose.com is promoted through a number of digital channels – including the website, smartphone apps, Waitrose Live, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Both Harding and Feldmann say the use of social media has been instrumental in the growth of their unique visitors. BrandAlley’s Sales are launched early on Facebook and it’s clear that as its number of Facebook fans grow, so does its unique visitors to its site. Harding says House of Fraser has notched up a 500% increase in fan numbers on Facebook in the last three months.

Unique visitor figures are just one part in determining online success, but they can’t be dismissed. After all, they are the etail equivalent of footfall figures. In many cases improvements in uniques are also a sign that online marketing techniques are improving. But it’s those etailers that deliver an exceptional proposition that are the true winners in the battle for online share.

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