Down but Not Out

 
 
By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2006-11-30
 
 
 
On the day after Thanksgiving, Macys.coms site gave site visitors a flood of error messages and responded to page requests at a speed six times slower than normal, and it did that from about 4 a.m. until about 2:15 p.m. But the site didnt literally shut down, but for about an hour of that time.

From the perspective of the owner of Macys—Federated Department Stores, which also owns Bloomingdales—the only problem was the 1 hour the site was fully down. "We were doing business all day," said Jim Sluzewski, Federateds vice president for corporate communications.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, the site crashed again, starting at about 4:30 p.m., Sluzewski said, and it came back at 5:45 p.m., "when we rebooted the server. It was a hardware issue."

But services that monitor Web traffic saw that crash preceded as well by errors and dramatically slower response times.

Macys is only the latest example of a frightening trend among e-commerce players, including some of the industrys largest retailers. They see Web traffic in black-and-white terms, with the site either being up or down, with nothing in between.

Wal-Mart and Macys both found themselves shut out of the online portion of the holiday sales rush much of Black Friday. Click here to read more.

Users, however, tend to look at it quite differently. They see the site either as fast and responsive or not. If the user has to wait 30 seconds for a page to load, that user will declare the site down and will click to a rivals site. The fact that the server might merely be running slowly doesnt mean much to the guy in Toledo who wants to buy a new refrigerator.

We already know that online shoppers today are trigger-happy, quick to click away to a rival at the slightest slight, and that theyll frequently punish the brick-and-mortar brand for sins committed by the online cousin. But household-name retailers days away from December 2006 being blissfully ignorant of huge slight slowdowns? How rampant can this be?

Ben Rushlo, who watches e-commerce activity all across the country for Keynote Systems, wasnt surprised by the trend when reached late Nov. 29, despite the fact that consumers know it instantly. "You cant argue that a 10 times slowdown is not noticeable," Rushlo said. I guess the site owner is always the last to know.

"I just had a long e-mail conversation with a major retailer site that had exactly that attitude," he said. "They said something like, We had record sales during that period. My point was that while you might have had some users who got through, you were really having an impact on even greater revenue.

"So the argument that some people got through [or even a record number got through] doesnt work because of all the other people who wouldnt have abandoned or would have purchased if you hadnt had a performance meltdown," Rushlo said. "We do not think that users will be OK with waiting 30 seconds for something that takes normally 2 seconds on the site or will only take 2 seconds on a competitors site. As the Internet becomes more of a utility, users are becoming less and less tolerant of slowdowns like this."

Lets be precise about this. The immediate concern is not that retailers are fine with letting their sites get super slow. A handful do indeed feel that way, but thats not the case with most large retailers. No, the concern is that far too many retailers are blissfully unaware of their sites performance if their internal (behind the firewall) indicators show that all is well.

"My gut feeling is that the obliviousness is still out there for a large percentage" of major retailers, said Imad Mouline, chief technology officer for Gomez, another Web traffic tracking site.

Mouline said the problem stems from how most e-commerce managers see the world. "A lot of these sites are simply looking at it from the inside, checking out the load on the Web server," he said. "Thats honestly just absurd. Its not the whole picture."

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First, performance behind the firewall—in immediate proximity to the main server—will always be slightly faster. Second, much of the content for the largest e-commerce sites is not residing on the retailers servers, with everything from third-party services (for checkout, shipping and some aspects of security) to third-party content for additional products being offered by partners. "Some of these sites can have six, seven or eight [of these third parties], and it can be a cascading event when any of these third parties slow down," Mouline said.

These are all things that the retailer could impact if only the retailer knew. Lets not even get into the mountain of issues that the retailer cannot possibly impact that can also dramatically slow down a purchase experience, such as slowdowns at the customers ISP, the Internet in general, the local area around the consumer (for shared connections, such as cable modems) and even the consumers machine (RAM, hard disk, CPU, browser and third-party software can all dramatically impact the sites perceived speed).

The most frightening retail defenses are also among the most common.

Defense/Excuse No. 1: "Our site cant be seriously slowed down. Look at all the sales were making this afternoon." Beyond the correct point that Rushlo made about the inability to know how many additional sales would have been made had the site been operating properly, theres a bigger issue. How happy are those customers? Were they thrilled with the easy and effortless experience? Or were they frustrated and resentful and pledged that, if they can only get through this checkout, theyre never coming back again?

People talk about e-commerce sites being able to replicate all of the features of a brick and mortar, but adding 1,000 more. In this instance, though, a myopic nature of e-commerce comes through. At a physical store, associates and floor managers know when customers are upset. As lines get long and the parking lot gets overfilled, people are not shy about voicing their frustration. Online, however, few sites make it easy to do so. Theres rarely a space next to ZIP Code asking "How are we doing?"

This brings us to Defense/Excuse No. 2: "I know that customer problems are isolated. Otherwise, Id be getting lots of complaints from our customers." When its been a long and frustrating shopping experience, few consumers will take the time to craft a helpful note about the problem. Even if some were inclined to do so, few retailers make it easy.

There are a lot of ways to improve online customer interaction, but a great place to start is to accept the fact that a slow site is worse than a crashed site. At least with a crashed site, retailers know theres an immediate problem to fix. Retailers, take note: Ignorance of your true site performance is going to kill more of your sales than an army of viruses.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

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