Last Minute Lovers Thwarted by Valentine's Day Crush

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Valentine's Day procrastinators paid the price yesterday when they were unable to log onto major online greetings sites that were overwhelmed by an unexpected surge in traffic.


Hallmark.com, AmericanGreetings.com, eGreetings.com and bluemountain.com fell victim to sporadic slowdowns starting Tuesday evening, locking out eleventh-hour consumers seeking to send online greetings to loved ones on Valentine's Day.


"It's very similar to what occurred in the 1999 Christmas season in that there was an unanticipated, large demand for online buying," said John Steensen, chief technology officer of Intira Corp. "This past holiday season, many of these sites had learned their lessons and scaled up.


"Obviously what's happened this time for Hallmark.com and AmericanGreetings.com, they had not anticipated the level of demand for their services and therefore that results in slower services," Steensen said.


A Pleasanton, CA, company, Intira is an outsourced provider of backend infrastructure and hosting capabilities.


The traffic spike surprised even the well prepared.


AmericanGreetings.com, No. 1 in online greetings traffic, said it normally garners 500,000 page views per hour and expected five times that amount for Valentine's Day. Yesterday, page views totaled nearly 5 million an hour.


"We're a little bit sluggish but we can handle most of the traffic but obviously we need to make sure our services are available 24/7," said Nancy Davis, director of communications at AmericanGreetings.com, which recently signed an agreement to buy eGreetings.com.


The Cleveland company's technology team is said to have stayed up all night before Valentine's Day to send 1.2 million greetings slated for early-morning delivery.


"I think electronic greetings are growing at a much faster rate than anyone realizes," Davis said.


According to Jupiter Research, New York, sending and receiving online greeting cards is the No. 2 activity on the Internet after e-mail.


Intira's Steensen said that the slowdowns would have repercussions in terms of potential revenue lost during those hours the sites were out of combat.


"Also, they will have lost some good will and customers that they will have to try to reclaim," he said. "They'll have to find new customers to replace these customers that won't come back."


Kathi Mishek, publicity manager at Hallmark.com, was unfazed by fears of revenue losses.


"I would say that the vast majority of our Valentine's sales peaked on Monday and what we're talking about today is the spike in traffic for free stuff, free e-cards," Mishek said.


AmericanGreetings.com's Davis is fairly certain that online consumers will understand the slowdowns.


"Many customers know that if they experience busyness, that the top-tier sites can handle this level of traffic so they know to check back later," she said.


Hallmark.com was apologetic about the breaks in service throughout Valentine's Day. The Kansas City, MO, company put up a brief notice on its site that said "overwhelming demand for Valentine's e-cards has limited our service."


It offered disappointed Hallmark.com visitors an array of options: Buy a gift certificate from GiftCert.com, shop at RedEnvelope.com or pick up some gourmet desserts from Cheryl&Co.com.


Next door to those suggestions was an appealing graphic of a bunch of Ecuadorian red roses.


"From a traffic standpoint, we were getting five to six times the amount of traffic this year versus last year," Hallmark.com's Mishek said.


Mishek would not disclose numbers, but said that Hallmark.com was geared for this eventuality. The site was down intermittently through yesterday.


"We actually knew this was going to occur," she said, "so those coming in to pick up their e-cards were given a priority preference and at the same time we allowed the site to throttle in smaller numbers of new users."
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