Staples Web Site: That Wasnt Easy

Opinion: Staples was so proud of its e-commerce redesign that it talked with reporters in advance. But when the site was set to launch Monday, Staples decided it didn't work and didn't launch. It then had to explain why. Lesson learned.

Years ago, I was talking with the CEO of a major privately held consumer products company. He casually mentioned that he would never again work for a publicly held company.

Asked why, he said, "For the life of me, I cant think why I would want to publicly air all of our mistakes if I didnt have to."

Although it is indeed a publicly held company, Staples e-commerce glitch on Monday had nothing to do with Wall Street. Ironically, its PR problem was a result of aggressive PR. Put another way, it decided to be an especially public company and learned why that is not always a great idea.

Several weeks ago, Staples began contacting media covering e-commerce—including Its pitch: Staples was radically designing its e-commerce Web site.

The site changes were nice—such as a system that flags essential accessories—but they werent especially unusual. The most intriguing capability involved multichannel, where the Web site could reflect purchases made by the customers on the phone, from their catalog.

But that capability didnt extend to the physical stores. In other words, a visitor to the Web site wouldnt be told the dimensions of the envelope labels he/she typically buys at a Staples store.

/zimages/5/28571.gifTower Records recently retuned its site, but it leveraged software that helped it understand how customers see its pages. To read more, click here.

In briefings, Staples officials stressed how they streamlined their site (reducing the number of categories from 25 to 17), made reordering easier, facilitated coupon use and added a lot more explanatory information about products.

But during the demonstration briefing—performed on the $13 billion retailers staging server—the site frequently glitched and froze. Thats OK, we were told, its still being fine-tuned.

On Friday, PR agency people were still pushing the story and encouraging stories to be written to publish Monday morning, to coincide with the launch.

On Monday, though, a different e-mail was sent: "The Staples site did not launch today because the Staples team felt that the site did not meet the service standards for Staples customers. It will be launching in the near future."

A subsequent e-mail from Staples PR Manager Owen Davis said the problem was that the sites performance hadnt improve enough: "When we made it available to customers over the weekend, it wasnt consistently providing the outstanding response times our loyal customers expect, so we elected to postpone the launch."

In non-PR speak, the site was crawling at an even more glacial pace than they thought they could get away with.

Next Page: Staples move was gutsy, admirable.