1-800-Flowers Crashes Just Before Valentine's Day. How Cruel Can E-Commerce Get?

E-Commerce is cruel. It punishes E-tailers with site crashes and slowdowns on the days when a responsive site is most needed. This Valentine's Day, the nasty fist of the Web hammered some of the top floral sites, shutting down 1-800-Flowers and slowing to a crawl Flower.com, Justflowers.com, Sendflowers.com and 1stinflowers.com, according to monitoring stats released by Pingdom.

But not all flower sites wilted on this "prove your love to me or else" holiday. Pingdom reported that Proflowers.com, Shop.marthastewart.com, Hallmark.com and Findaflorist.com fared just fine.

(Critical Update Editor's Note: We typically do not publish an update to a story until it's been verified and it's clear what is going on, but we're making an exception here. 1-800-Flowers is denying that its site crashed. We are reviewing specifics with 1-800-Flowers and with Pingdom to determine what happened. A report from another site-monitoring company, Keynote, also detected an anomaly with 1-800-Flowers' site that day, but Keynote did not detect an outage. It's hard to draw any final conclusions as of yet, but there appears to be reason to believe the floral chain's servers either blocked the Pingdom agent--causing it to conclude a site outage, due to a lack of server response--or the site might have detected that a server that had been taken out of the production was down, interpreting that as a site failure. Either way, we'll report back once the matter is resolved. We're not yet prepared to contradict Pingdom's report, but there's reason to flag that possibility to readers. End Of Editor's Note. Returning now to the original story.)

To be fair, these comparisons don't take into account traffic on those days. In terms of overall traffic, Martha Stewart's site and ProFlowers have higher year-round numbers, but 1-800-Flowers makes an especially intense push on Valentine's Day. Its site might have gotten hurt the most, because of especially effective promotions.

Pingdom's Peter Alguacil is not inclined to be so forgiving. His point—which is not entirely out of line—is that 1-800-Flowers and other floral sites should have known for a very long time that they would be deluged with traffic on this day and they should have prepared better.

"A site is supposed to adapt and scale. They must be well aware of the amount of traffic they normally serve, and how that amount fluctuates around holidays and events like these," Alguacil said. "1800flowers.com will always have a good amount of traffic, but really, it's not so heavily trafficked that it should crash so much for so long, especially during business hours. I don't know if maybe they ran some form of promotion that could have brought in a ton of visits on Friday, but still, they were either not prepared or had extremely bad luck, with the former being much more likely. They're probably not very happy about what happened. And if they did run a big promotion, all the more reason to have been well prepared for an influx of traffic."

His point is a solid one, but it's still tricky. When the yearly average traffic is so sharply different than a seasonal peak, it can be difficult to justify radical changes. To flip that around, though, if such a huge percentage of sales come in just a few days, isn't preventing any downtime then worth that investment? Calculating the hourly revenue during those peak days is not a bad place to start when looking at Web infrastructure investments for next year.