Cyber Monday '08: The Butterfly Effect In Action

Whether the wing flapping of a bug can eventually cause a tornado is debatable, but Cyber Monday 2008 should serve as a warning to E-tailers to avoid the lesson learned by Staples and Dell on Monday (Dec. 1): Don't ignore the butterfly effect.

In both instances, these major E-tail sites were brought to a halt because of glitches with relatively minor site components. It was a minor search engine problem that brought Staples' availability way down, while Dell was knocked off by some coding that prepopulated forms with customer information, based on access to a CRM database.

But it was likely something much more fundamental that repeatedly crashed Jcrew.com Monday, in a manner that was unusually similar to huge problems the site experienced when it first launched this summer.

Despite those incidents—in part fueled by record-breaking traffic, which decided to not be influenced by the recession—this year's Cyber Monday was relatively uneventful, with most of the major retailers faring quite well. But for those who didn't fare so well—including Costco, Bloomingdale's, Borders UK, Gap, Home Depot, Victoria's Secret, Williams-Sonoma, Tiger Direct, Wegmans and H-E-B—it was a memorable day.

Record Numbers

Traffic topped out at 6.7 million global visitors per minute at about 2:15 PM New York time, according to Akamai, which tracks Internet traffic at 280 major retailers. "Last year on Cyber Monday, our global visitors-per-minute peak was 4,608,640," said Akamai spokesman Jeff Young. "And Cyber Monday traffic last year was a 30 percent increase over the Cyber Monday 2006 peak."

Despite that traffic, revenues were reported to be flat, with Chase Paymentech finding that Cyber Monday's sales volume "increased less than half a percent from last year" and that the "average ticket size, or average dollar spent per transaction, decreased 12 percent below last year." To paraphrase Winston Churchill, "Never before have so many clicked on so much to buy so little."

The site that came closest to an honest-to-goodness crash was JCrew. Site monitoring company Keynote saw Jcrew.com go "completely offline" at 11:29 AM New York time, said Shawn White, Keynote's director of operations. "In about 80 percent of my results, I am seeing the following message posted, assuming I can even get through: 'Stay Tuned. Sorry, we're experiencing some technical difficulties right now (even the best sites aren't perfect). Check back with us in a little while.'"

By 2:50 PM, White said Jcrew.com was doing even worse, as "99 percent" of Keynote's attempts to access the site failed. By 3:30 PM, the site was doing much better, but White said its problems resumed at about 4 PM and continued for at least another 90 minutes.

At Dell.com, the butterfly wing action came in the form of an inability to retrieve account information entered earlier by site users, according to site monitoring company Gomez. At Staples.com, Gomez traced site unavailability issues were to problems with the search function. There were also some problems with the search function at Office Max's site, but they didn't affect the operation of the rest of the site, said Gomez analyst Matt Poepsel.

Gap Falling

The Gap chain had the dubious distinction of being the first major brand to be reported on Cyber Monday with a site problem. Shortly before noon New York Time, site monitoring company Pingdom reported Gap was down.

"It went down at 11:38 AM and was responding with HTTP server error 503 (service unavailable) and 500 (internal server error) intermittently until 11:58, when it seems that Gap started redirecting to a temporary maintenance page," said Pingdom's Peter Alguacil. He said temporary maintenance pages are seen by Pingdom's system as viable pages because they do not come with server error responses. To shoppers, however, a maintenance page is little better than no page at all.

"The site came back at 12:36 PM (New York time), then was down again between 12:38 and 12:56 PM" and showing the maintenance page again, Alguacil said. "Then we got the maintenance page again intermittently, at 12:57 PM, 1:01 PM and 1:05 PM."

After that, the Web site was accessible. A Gap spokeswoman blamed the problem on "unprecedented levels of traffic."

There were also issues with Victoria's Secret's site. Starting at 10 AM New York time, Victoriassecret.com had problems processing shopping cart and check-out functions, Gomez said. Site monitoring company Keynote reported a laundry list of minor issues that seemed to be affecting the site throughout the day. These included JavaScript loading and DNS errors.

Gomez pointed out afflictions with the shopping cart and payment side at Williams-Sonoma's site, noting a typical transaction slowed from 26 seconds at 6 AM New York Time to almost 50 seconds between 7 AM and 9 AM. The site returned to a steady 24-second response time at 10 AM, Gomez said.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Dell's site began mistreating returning shoppers between 9:40 AM and 10:15 AM New York time, according to Gomez. The site's problems appeared to have nothing to do with traffic-handling capacity or the other usual suspects. Instead, Gomez determined that Dell.com got tripped up trying to add convenience to its shopping experience. Visitors who left the site and returned were "unable to retrieve prepopulated account information, meaning they had to start over filling out forms when checking out," according to Gomez.

Meanwhile, visitors to Staples.com could have used one of the office supply company's "Easy Buttons" in the middle of the day, when—according to Keynote and Gomez—the site encountered problems. Keynote said the Staple's homepage was responding up to 10 times slower than normal for 30 minutes starting at noon New York time and its availability dropped to 75 percent. Gomez traced the problem to a search result glitch.

A Glitch Here, A Stumble There

  • Costco was dealing with sporadic problems throughout the day, a situation that Gomez said involved an unspecified issue with the site's back-end.
  • Sephora.com and Tigerdirect.com were found by Pingdom to have availability problems.
  • Texas grocery chain H-E-B's site had availability problems, reported Sitemorse.
  • HomeDepot.com found itself with some hiccups during the morning, as did PCMall and CompUSA, according to Pingdom.
  • There was a brief, reportedly hardware-related, outage at online movie renting pioneer Netflix.com, according to Cnet.
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