For months, Hallmark Cards had been building a new Web site in parallel with its old one. On a September night last year, past midnight, Hallmark's online team arrived at its moment of truth, the switch-over.

Would the new site work? Paul Barker, the vice president and general manager of Hallmark Digital, which manages the company's online presence, wasn't certain of it.

"We were all kind of standing around waiting for it to break, waiting for it to crash, and it didn't -- it was a real confidence booster, I think, for the entire organization," Barker said.

But he still had concerns. Would conversion rates , or sales, be hurt by it? This project was a complete re-architecture and platform shift.

"We expected to have a lower conversion rate because we thought, with a new site, it was going to take some time for people to get used to it," Barker said.

Instead, Hallmark says its conversion rate increased by 30%.

The company also said customers experienced a 370% improvement in site response time. "Our response time would erode significantly during the peak times," Barker said. "That was an unacceptable level of performance."

The response time improvement began when Savvis was hired as its hosting provider and Infosys, the India-based offshore firm, as its primary application developer. Response times from 2009 to 2010 improved two to three times, but after launching the new version of Hallmark.com last September, response times in December increased by more than 50% over the previous year.

Although the exact before- and after-response times weren't immediately available from Hallmark, Ken Godskind, the chief strategy officer for AlertSite, a Web performance management company, said Hallmark's percentage improvement "leads me to feel like [the previous response time] must have been really scary before."

Barker said that AlertSite s findings mirror its data as well. "We feel we are performing very well."

Today, Hallmark's site is very responsive. At Computerworld's request, AlertSite benchmarked Hallmark.com's homepage Wednesday afternoon from 12 cities and came up with an average response time of 2.47 seconds, putting it at about 15th on its most recent rankings of response times among the retail sites it ranks . The benchmark average was 3.35 seconds.

Prior to the makeover, Hallmark was adding a growing catalog of features that included loyalty points, address books and reminders of key events such as birthdays and other customer services. It was adding this functionality to a site that already had more than 5,000 products.

The site additions produced a complex code layer that hurt performance, but also made it difficult to add new customer features. Because of this, Hallmark decided to remake the site. "This gave us an ability to have a fresh start," Barker said.

Hallmark moved off its IBM 's WebSphere to Microsoft .Net, because of lower licensing and maintenance cost.

Hallmark's IT organization is largely focused on enterprise -wide needs that help it deliver manufacturing products sold at retail. It doesn't have the IT resources to focus on Web-based delivery, and they didn't want to build that capacity, Barker said.

Although Infosys is an offshore company, it maintains a permanent staffing presence at Hallmark, said Barker. "Our Infosys team has been our right hand in all of this," he said. The availability of offshore resources allows Hallmark to scale-up additional resources as needed, he said. Savvis provides the hardware hosting.

Barker doesn't credit any single change with improving the conversion rate. Optimizing search and navigation helped as did overall streamlining in making it easier for customers to find product, he said.

A response rate of three to five seconds, measuring from the moment a person hits a page to the time the page is fully rendered, is ideal, said Khalid Saleh, co-founder of conversion rate optimization company Invesp Consulting and co-author of "Conversion Optimization: The Art and Science of Converting Prospects to Customers" (O'Reilly Media, 2010). Any response time above seven seconds, "and we start to get worried," he said.

Saleh said it's difficult to pin conversion rates to response rate improvements, but when you drop from 12 seconds to five seconds "you can see a huge uplift in customers," -- and conversion increase gains as high as 12%, but he said the increase reported by Hallmark is "not unheard of."

Barker said the experience has given his organization "a lot of confidence that we can take on even more, whether more services, products, functionality."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

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