When it comes to online retail, service matters — and so does speed. Four seconds, to be exact.

"The customer experience begins the very instant a shopper types in your online address," said Don Becklin, president of Motorcycle Superstore. "We put a very strong focus on both the organization of our site and the site’s performance."

A year ago, Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) found that slow-loading pages ranked near the top of the most "annoying" attributes list for online shoppers.

Now, as the all-important online holiday shopping season nears, and the competition for online shoppers increases, a new report from Akamai Technologies advises e-tailers to be on their toes — because a few heartbeats can make the difference between a sale and a lost customer.

The research shows that four seconds is the maximum length of time an average online shopper will wait for a Web page to load before abandoning one retail site and moving on to another.

"The critical takeaway from this research is that online shoppers not only demand quality site performance, they expect it," said Brad Rinklin of Akamai. "Four seconds is the new benchmark by which a retail site will be judged, which leaves little room for error for retailers to maintain a loyal online customer base."

With 46% of online shoppers insisting on a rapid checkout process, and with 55% of shoppers spending $1,500 or more demanding the same, the report contends that online shopper loyalty is contingent upon quick page loading — especially for high-spending shoppers.

In fact, poor site performance ranked second only to high product prices and shipping costs as leading factors for dissatisfaction among online shoppers.

Obviously, page-loading time could be a critical competitive differentiator, particularly during the heavy shopping season when traffic can slow even hardy systems. And plenty of sites should be worried. During normal business periods, almost half of the retailers on the Internet Retailer "Top 500" sites list have response times in excess of four seconds.

This holiday season, no speed could be dangerous for online retailers.

More here.