Last year's holiday season was marked by consumer complaints about Web pages taking too long to download or sites that crashed completely. Many customers toiled to find goods, or worse, never got what they ordered.
Consumers who expect the same kind of service during the holiday shopping crunch as they do throughout the rest of the year will grow impatient with sluggish sites and spotty delivery, analysts say.
The rule this year: 'Tis the season to be fully operational.
For BlueLight and Walmart.com, revamped looks mean widening the selection of goods for sale and making it easier for customers to move around the site.
Increasing the number of items offered online is easier said than done, since it usually means consumers are forced to plow through a maze of links and page turns to find products. After last season's trials and errors, the large retail stores have learned that customers are looking for speed, said Rebecca Nidositko, a senior analyst at Internet research company The Yankee Group.
"How do you walk customers through a storeroom full of goods using only a Web site?" Nidositko said. "That's the problem that they're trying to solve."
Getting its Web house in order was so important to Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, the retail world's heaviest hitter, that it shut down its e-commerce operations and surrendered a month's worth of online sales to complete the site redesign.
Walmart.com chief executive Jeanne Jackson, who came over from Banana Republic's Internet unit in March, said Walmart.com's former site was incapable of producing the kind of customer service that the company required.
"People think the Web site is the whole online operation, but really it's just the front door," she said. "You have a complicated fulfillment chain behind it where you have to make sure products are in stock, that they can be delivered on time, and that customers are charged correctly."
Walmart.com's redesign involved creating images and written descriptions for more than 500,000 items. Padlocking the site for a month was the easiest way to complete the changes without having to worry about maintaining the old site, said Jackson, adding that the site's makeover will extend beyond the holidays.
"We will hopefully have a site that will be easier to use and that customers will like now," she said. "But this is a marathon, not a sprint. We still have things to learn on improving our site."
To whisk shoppers around their Web stores more quickly, some e-tailers are boosting the power of their search engines or using software that predicts what a customer wants to buy based on their past purchases, Nidositko said.
BlueLight, based in San Francisco, has spent hundreds of hours refining its new search engine. Most of the functions that companies need to improve the customer experience can be bought, but a search feature is not one of them, BlueLight chief executive Mark Goldstein said. He said that no company offering a search technology can provide an all-in-one approach, so companies have to take the initiative and build their own.
E-tail giant Amazon.com set the example for pure online retailers with its redesign completed last summer. Nidositko said that by removing some of its product tabs, Amazon cleared away clutter on the site. She said the risk involved in that, however, is that new Internet users shopping Amazon for the first time may not discover all of the e-tailer's offerings.
But overall, Nidositko said, brick-and-mortar players are the ones making the biggest strides in offering new shopping features.
They entered the game with huge advantages, including more money, greater buying power, and wider name recognition than most of their pure-play competitors. For instance, studies have shown that half of the United States' population shops at Wal-Mart's brick-and-mortar stores each week.
However, with each new step the so-called big-box retailers take to improve their sites, they get closer to bulldozing the online competitors out of the game, Nidositko said.
"Their competition is fading fast," she said. "The field is wide open. It's a good time for these guys to make a move."