Customer friendly

It was one of the biggest online shopping days of the year — Cy­ber Monday. But the Vermont Teddy Bear Company was just one of many e-commerce Web sites af­fected by Yahoo Stores’ well-publi­cized technical difficulties on this post-Thanksgiving day in 2007, with its sites (including Vermont Teddy Bear and PajamaGram) down for almost six hours.

But, the company was able to miti­gate potential sales losses by moving quickly to deal with ordering issues. Within hours, director of e-com­merce Bill Cronin prominently placed instructions on the sites, instructing shoppers to call a customer service representative if they were experienc­ing difficulty completing an order.

“Luckily for us, we have a very good call center that can scale up quickly,” Cronin says.

In addition, as soon as Yahoo identified its new shopping cart as the source of the problem, Vermont Teddy Bear quickly downgraded to the older version. Despite these measures, how­ever, some sales were lost.

“Internet shoppers require instant gratification and if they can’t get it from you, they’re going to get it from someone else,” Cronin admits.

Challenges of increased traffic

The holiday season is notorious for Web site outages, mostly due to higher traffic and companies that can’t handle the increased volume. According to Ken Salchow, manager of technical marketing at network application services provider F5, some companies still don’t treat their Web sites seriously enough and allow the IT department to upload new code on Thanksgiving Day, for example.

“I am simply amazed, every Black Friday, at the number of e-commerce sites that don’t know how to handle flash crowds,” he says.

Vermont Teddy Bear Company, however, is addressing the Internet shopper’s growing expectations for Web sites that download quickly by moving several of its brands (including Gift Bag Boutique and TastyGram) over to more reliable e-commerce platforms. Cronin points out that these moves don’t involve Vermont Teddy Bear and PajamaGram’s relationships with Yahoo Stores because, except for the problems over Thanksgiving, that platform has performed well.

“We experience big sales spikes at certain times and we need to be on a platform that is able to scale up to those peaks,” Cronin says.

Vermont Teddy Bear also uses AlertSite’s monitoring services, which automatically notifies the company when there is a problem with one of its Web sites. This service came in handy during the 2006 holiday season when Gift Bag Boutique was mentioned on a television show without any advance notice.

“People came to the site in large numbers and site performance deteriorated to the point where we got alerts,” Cronin says.

As a result, the company was able to make some adjustments and provide all visitors a smoother, albeit slightly slower, response.

Not just an IT department issue

Until recently, only IT personnel understood such terms as “load balancing” and “offloading.” Now, however, even CEOs and CFOs recognize the need to balance traffic between network servers in order to enhance performance, or to move certain Web site functions off the main server so that functionality can be improved. Cronin says that his superiors understand that a reliable Web site “can protect your brand and provide customer loyalty.”

“There was a time when Web site monitoring was a luxury,” says Ken Godskind, VP of sales at AlertSite. But these days, “site and transaction monitoring are part of the basics of doing a good job,” he continues.

In addition, retailers are now handling the outages that do happen more gracefully. “If you’re a shopper and you go to a page that says ‘Hey, we’re a little busy,’ you walk away with a much different sentiment than if you get an internal server error page,” Godskind explains.

Industry watchdogs agree, that with a growing number of retailers paying attention to how their Web sites are performing, overall Web performance is improving in the retail space, with fewer and shorter outages.

The numbers seem to support the assessment that retail Web sites are able to better handle increasing traffic levels and still provide a satisfactory experience to consumers. Retail sites saw 4.6 million global visitors per minute on Cyber Monday in November, 1 million more per minute than on the same day in the previous year, according to Web accelerating service provider Akamai. Sales were also up between November 1 and December 27, and nearly $28 billion was spent online, a 19% gain over the same period in the previous year, according to ComScore.

“Generally, Internet retailers’ scores were really good on performance in terms of customer satisfaction [this holiday season],” says Larry Freed, president/CEO of ForeSee Results, which measures customer satisfaction levels in the retail industry.

Still, overall customer satisfaction levels with Internet retailers dropped this holiday season by 1.3% due to a lack of innovation in new feature functionality and bad economic conditions, according to ForeSee’s Holiday 2007 Satisfaction report.

A new feature that consumers are beginning to look for and which Internet retailers haven’t addressed yet is standardizing Web performance across the different contexts in which customers are shopping, for example, shopping from an iPhone. Salchow says that he knows of only one major multichannel retailer that has addressed this issue and put intelligence in its network that understands the context a shopper is using and can dynamically change the site to best meet these conditions.

By working to keep performance issues to a minimum, Vermont Teddy Bear enjoyed its most successful holiday season ever in terms of Web site traffic, though, Cronin warns, it wasn’t easy.

“Everybody likes to think of the Internet like it’s the phone service, but it’s still a bunch of disparate entities and we’re relying on them to connect to each other,” he says.

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