Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
December 25, 2007 9:42 AM

How The e-commerce Grinch Stole Christmas - A Holiday Season Marketing Disaster

Imagine the advertising spend for Boxing Day. Imagine how much money is spent on everything from creative and mechanicals to media and ensuring that your online presence can support the specials and sales. In Canada, Boxing Day is the retail equivalent to the Superbowl. We're not talking about any given Sunday here - this is their day for the touchdowns.

The brutal experience I had last night with one of the largest retailers in Canada (and they also do some of the biggest hype to build up their Boxing Day extravaganza), would be enough to make Bryan Eisenberg - GrokDotCom and co-author of Call To Action and Waiting For Your Cat To Bark - throw his hands up in the air and declare the death of e-commerce (for those not in the know, Bryan is widely regarded as the leading expert in online shopping persuasion and conversion).

One of my ongoing resolutions was to not create Customer Service rant type Blog postings here at Six Pixels of Separation. In the interest of staying true to this, I've decided to not name the retailer (though I do know senior people who work there, and I will be sending them a link to this Blog posting). Their online Boxing Day sales were set to roll at 8:00 pm on December 24th (last night). Here's a chronological recap of my experience with my Marketing thoughts at the end.

7:45 pm - I ensure that my customer profile is complete and load up the page with the main product I want.
7:59 pm - I hit the "buy" button and I am switched over to their "your request is being processed" page. The product is saved to my shopping cart.
8:04 pm - Still on the "your request is being processed" page - the server is obviously taking on tons of traffic.
8:10 pm - I get switched to a page called "Boxing Day Check-Out Queue" - there is a status bar indicating how long I will have to wait for payment processing. My bar is at about 5% complete.
8:24 pm - The status bar has not moved. I open up the page in multiple browsers and follow the other steps in hoping one of them will work. They're all stuck at the same point.
8:27 pm - I call Customer Service.
9:12 pm - I speak to a Customer Service representative (after waiting close to 45 minutes on hold) who tells me that they can't complete my transaction over the phone because they can't access the website - it is down. There is "nothing we can do," to quote the rep.
9:15 pm - The website crashes - all of my browser pages become error pages, and when I hit refresh, it is a landing page stating that I will have to come back in a few minutes due to the overwhelming traffic.
10:00 pm - site is still down.
10:15 pm - site reopens, I repeat the initial steps. The product is saved to my shopping cart.
11:10 pm - I am stuck once again on the Boxing Day Check-Out Queue page, but the status bar is moving.
12:00 am - Merry Christmas - I get to 100% on the status bar page and then a error message page... I've been booted off again.
12:01 am - The product is now sold out. The seed is planted for this Blog posting.

Main point: my guess is that many people took to e-commerce for their first time because of these sales. Those people are gone - probably never to come back. The experience was a train wreck, and after taking a quick look on places like Technorati, I know I was not alone.

Secondary point: you must be able to provide an optimal experience in an environment like online shopping. Either ensure that you can support the flood of traffic (buy more servers, put more people on customer service who can complete the transaction over the phone, etc...) or place warning text throughout the site that "due to the high volume of traffic you may experience a sub-par online shopping experience" or that "your transaction may not be completed (so don't get your hopes up)."

Last point: I actually love the brand of this retailer. I don't anymore. After four hours of watching what I wanted to purchase (twice) get taken from me due to lack of technological infrastructure to support the traffic, and having a human customer service representative tell me that there was nothing they could do to help demonstrated that this retailer cares about pushing the product out the door and not the consumer experience or support.

Marketing point: don't do it if you can't fulfill it. In this day and age, if you can't create a seamless experience, don't bother. The long term loss of Customers and brand experience is simply not worth it.

I'm not upset that I did not get the product - that's part of the Boxing Day madness. The retailer will sell the full quantity that they put on special, and make their numbers. The excitement was there. But, moving forward the damage this causes the brand and the Consumers' desire and appetite to buy online transcends any "moment in time." This is not like waiting in line for five hours and there not being any product left when you finally get into the store. This was more like getting in first, having it in your shopping cart and then the retailer deciding that they don't want to sell it to you, but they give your products to someone else while you're waiting in line to pay for it... twice.

That kind of sting takes a long time to heal. If you're not familiar with buying online, it's these kinds of experiences that will keep the online retail industry with their current pitiful conversion rates for years to come.

By Mitch Joel