Target's Too-Clever Site Fails (Or Does It?): Inside Missoni Tuesday

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Target's E-Commerce inventiveness is coming back to bite it. When the chain's three-week-old Web site crashed early Tuesday morning (Sept. 13) in the face of a ravening hoard of shoppers looking for Missoni products, the site truly was down. By noon Eastern time, the site was back up—but many would-be customers continued to think the site was offline throughout the rest of the day. Those who did reach the site to shop reported issues at checkout time that might (or might not) have been true IT glitches. The problem: Even when Target.com works, it doesn't work the way customers expect. And, as a practical matter, that can be as bad as the site simply not working.

That compounded the problems of "Missoni Tuesday," which a Target spokesman said saw "greater item demand than we do on a typical Black Friday." But the crush of customers, and the fact that so many items sold out, masked a serious issue: Even though Target.com made buckets of money that day, the result left a bad taste in the mouths of many Target customers—and the site's nonconformist challenges are still there.

What did happen on Tuesday? Target will only confirm that the site was down for about three hours in the morning and then "inaccessible at times." That inaccessibility to customers may have been due to Target.com's unusual design, which appears to allow only a limited number of customer sessions on the site at once.

According to several Web monitoring services, the site ground almost to a halt just before 8:00 AM (New York time). If customers were patient enough (the error page took more than two minutes to load, according to Pingdom), they saw a picture of Target's mascot dog Bullseye in a repairman's suit, with the words "Oh no, something went wrong when we tried to (load this page/process your request). Please try again. If the problem persists, please feel free to contact Target help."

Nothing unusual about that—except, instead of also sending a typical HTTP error code such as 500 (internal server error) or 503 (service temporarily unavailable), the page reported code 200: everything OK.

By about 8:30 AM, the "Oh no" page was replaced by a different error page—same dog, but this time the message said: "Hello, we are hard at work making the site better. Sorry for the inconvenience—we'll be back up and running shortly."

At 11:15 AM (according to AlertBot), that page was replaced by yet another—still the same dog—with the message: "Woof! We are suddenly extremely popular. You may not be able to access our site momentarily due to unusually high traffic. Please stay here and we'll try to get you in as soon as we can! We're up and running here." AlertBot—and many potential Target.com customers—concluded that the site was still down.

But it wasn't. That was Target's innovative idea for preserving site performance. Once the number of customers in the online store reached a predefined limit, new customers just had to wait for someone else to leave. As a later version of the "Woof" page put it, "You will be automatically moved into the site when a spot is available. Please do not refresh this page or else you will lose your place in line." Still later versions explained that the site would automatically retry the homepage every 30 seconds.

In short, the site was working exactly as it was designed to. The "Woof" page lets customers in only as space is available; the fact that each session times out after 30 minutes, as we noted when we first looked at the new site, makes room by clearing out inactive customer sessions. (On a normal day, the pop-up message that indicates the timeout appears to have no effect. On Tuesday, it kicked inattentive customers back to the "Woof" page.)

Unfortunately for Target, that carefully managed queue is not what customers expect.Unfortunately for Target, that carefully managed queue is not what customers expect. There's no busy signal on the Internet—if a site is too crowded, customers assume the site has slowed down or crashed. When customers see a mascot in a repairman's suit, they figure the site is broken. They're unlikely to read small print instructing them to wait patiently. Hitting the refresh button is second nature for most Web shoppers today.

When those customer expectations ran up against Target's clever idea to improve site performance, the result was what you'd expect: Customers did what customers do, and everyone reported that the site was down all day—even long after the site was running correctly.

Well, mostly anyway. Customers who managed to get onto the site were able to clear the virtual shelves of cut-rate versions of Missoni's pricey merchandise pretty much the way shoppers were clearing the shelves in Target's brick-and-mortar stores. Along with problems getting into the online store, some customers complained on Twitter about problems logging in so they could check out and about items disappearing from their shopping carts at checkout time.

Those may have been actual back-end checkout problems—even after turning away large numbers of customers, Target.com was still logging big sales on the site. But the problems may also have been oddities we noted about the site three weeks ago. For example, customers who signed up when Amazon ran the site for Target were required to reset their passwords once Target unveiled the new site. Does that explain customers who had problems logging in?

And given Target.com's nonstandard approach to letting customers into the site, could products disappearing from shopping carts be a feature and not a bug? Suppose Target.com's designers decided that items would only be marked out-of-stock after the entire online inventory was actually purchased, rather than after all the available items had been placed in shopping carts.

That way, items in abandoned shopping carts wouldn't force the inventory system to flag products as out-of-stock, only to appear in-stock again once the shopping carts had timed out. That's actually a customer-friendly feature.

Except it also means that as a product was actually close to selling out on Tuesday, customers could keep putting that product into their shopping carts—and once the last unit of that product sold, the ones in not-yet-checked-out shopping carts would just evaporate.

Queuing customers at the virtual door, waiting to declare out-of-stocks until the last moment—these are interesting ideas. They're the type of innovation that retailers keep calling for.

But they're not what customers expect, and on a day like Missoni Tuesday, Target didn't look innovative. It looked like the victim of self-inflicted catastrophic failure—failure that's designed into the site, unless Target can manage to retrain its shoppers to change their habits and expectations that work fine on every other E-Commerce site.

Good luck with that, Bullseye.

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