Downtime Ugliness At Beauty Site Sephora.com

Meet the Queen of Crashes. Glamour-product retailer Sephora calls its E-Commerce effort "the world's top beauty Web site." The criterion for that claim is not revealed, but surely it isn't uptime. Sephora.com is one of the most troubled retail sites in the segment, in terms of it staying open for business.

Sephora's online face has repeatedly gone offline, often for hours, during the past six months. One of the worst spells began Saturday (June 6). It included a whopping eight hours of continuous downtime on Monday (June 8) and continued into the week, according to Web site monitoring company Pingdom.

Although the 8-hour outage on Monday was—at the time—the longest period the site was dead in the water, the other outages were not minor. In addition to the 8-hour incident on Monday, the site was offline ten other times that day with four of those outages lasting an hour or more and the others lasting at least 25 minutes. The site also was reported by Pingdom to be down about 10 times on Saturday, with most of those outages being less than 30 minutes long.

But Sephora has been running into quite a history of site problems, dating back to last year's Cyber Monday (Dec. 1). It was then among a smaller group of retailers who had an issue a week after that and then was part of an even smaller group of retailers still struggling to stay up yet two weeks after Cyber Monday.

On Sunday, Sephora.com was offline for about two hours straight at one point. That was in addition to eight other outages ranging from 26 minutes to 47 minutes, according to Pingdom. "If we look back a bit farther, Sephora.com also had a longer outage on May 8" of three hours and 25 minutes, said Pingdom Web Analyst Peter Alguacil. "It's the second-longest continuous outage they have had during the last three months." He said the site managed only a 97.82 percent average uptime during those 90 days.

A Sephora spokeswoman said the site suffered from technical difficulties, but said she did not know the details. The site, which was launched in October 1999 and claims to offer "the largest and most diverse selection of beauty products on the Internet," draws about 3 million monthly U.S. visitors, according to Quantcast. That's a drop in the bucket compared to a super-sized E-Commerce site (Quantcast says Amazon.com sees 217 million monthly U.S. visits and Walmart.com has about 75 million monthly U.S. visits) but about the same as other mid-level fashion/apparel retailers such as Neimanmarcus.com, which, according to Quantcast, has about 3.2 million monthly U.S. visitors and SaksFifthAvenue.com with its 2 million U.S. monthly visitors.

Nevertheless, any site that sees more than a million visits in a month should not be so fragile, poorly designed or left vulnerable to ISP or other network issues.On the brick-and-mortar front, Sephora is no lightweight, operating about 515 stores in 14 countries. The company, founded in 1969 and established in the U.S. as "Sephora America" in 1998, is a "specialty retailing" subsidiary of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the $24 billion European luxury goods conglomerate. .

In 2006, it became the exclusive beauty product retailer in J.C. Penny stores with a "store within a store" concept and a link between J.C. Penny's Web site and Sephora.com.

When one takes a look at the Sephora.com uptime and performance record, it's hard to not see the irony in Sephora's acknowledgement of the site's importance: The company points out that Sephora.com ranks as its "largest North American store in terms of sales and selection of products and brands."

The causes of the outages seem to vary. This week's issues appeared to be "mostly network related or some other type of connection problem," that prevented any pinging of the site, Alguacil said. "The reason I think it might be network related is because our servers simply couldn't connect to their server at all during the recent downtime periods," he said. "In other words, we didn't get far enough to get a proper response from their Web server. They could have had a problem on their LAN or their ISP could have had issues. The cause of those problems can be many things, such as damaged cabling and problems with equipment like switches and routers."

The May downtime appeared to be a "different story," Alguacil said. The site showed signs of life, but that was limited to the issuing of a cute apology.

The site reported back an internal server error (HTTP error 500) and presented on a status page: "Sorry, gorgeous! Our site is currently having a bad hair day (read: experiencing technical difficulties) due to high traffic volumes. We'll be back in action—and perfectly polished—ASAP, so check back with us in a few minutes to continue shopping."

Even when Sephora.com was up and running it often wasn't performing well. "The site also suffered from a lot of slowdown" during tests that measured response time for HTML code, Alguacil said. He said Pingdom classifies a site as being down if it is completely unreachable, does not load the basic HTML within 30 seconds or responds with an HTTP error code. Alguacil noted the Pingdom system "always performs a double-check before it reports anything as down," performing an extra test from a different location for confirmation.

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