All Web Meltdowns Are Not Created Equal

When file transfer site YouSendIt—with more than 100,000 paid users bringing in some $10 million this year—crashed on Monday (Nov. 17), it illustrated the kind of crash that should make retailers very concerned.

The crash itself, resolved by the end of the day, was caused by a hardware problem with Cisco routers in the company's San Jose datacenter, said Ranjith Kumaran, YouSendIt's chief technology officer. YouSendIt has two other data centers—one in Herndon, Va., and a European data center in London—but they weren't yet in a position to cover for the San Jose location.

But the bigger problem was twofold: When the file transfer systems died, that also brought down the Web site. And the system crashed in such a way that customers weren't sure if their files had been transmitted or not.

When customers called the company's headquarters, recorded messages instructed them to either ask for help through the Web site directly or to instant chat with support specialists, a service that is also only available via the Web site.

Customers didn't know what to do and all of the emergency help options were based on the (apparently false) assumption that the Web site would survive a system crash.

Always Assume The Worst

This assumption brings us to the retail quandary. It's inevitable that some retail sites will meltdown as the intensity of the holiday seasons gets ratcheted up starting next week. Indeed, there are reasons to believe it could be an especially site-crash-laden season this year.

That said, a site that crashes in the beginning of the transaction is in a much better position than one that melts down in the middle of checkout, leaving the consumer confused as to whether or not the purchase was consummated and the product shipped.

There's no mystery that the most meltdown likely part of an E-Commerce site is going to be at checkout. But beyond hardening that part of the process, the YouSendIt incident reminds all E-Commerce directors to assume that the worst will happen and to have Web-independent methods for consumers to get accurate purchase status. And, yes, that means publicizing actual phone numbers at a point prior to payment so that the if the purchase glitches in mid-payment, the customer has a way to get a status.

E-Commerce is a technology-based business, but putting too much reliance in that technology can make a bad situation much worse.

Consumers do not expect perfect E-Commerce transactions throughout the busiest shopping days of the year. If a site glitches, some will be open to being forgiving. But if you frustrate those customers further with a lack of information so they don't know if they need to purchase it somewhere else and risk paying double, that could give the term "meltdown" an even more frightening meaning.