Holiday Recap 2012: Hardly Any Downtime, Surprising Traffic Stats

Either retailers are getting better at handling the online holiday crunch or they're getting luckier. The biggest single outage of the 2012 holiday season was at, which was down for more than three hours on December 26, according to Web monitoring company Panopta. That was after the biggest Christmas crunch—but still in time to irritate Walmart shoppers trying to do returns and use giftcards.

Runner up was Victoria's Secret, which had 18 hours of total downtime but spread it over more than 30 short outages, mostly between 3:00 AM and 5:00 AM. That smacks of maintenance outages that were actually planned, even if they weren't planned very far in advance.

The Walmart downtime doesn't appear to have been planned—it involved problems handling DNS, which Walmart outsources to a third party. Maybe it was just luck that the trouble didn't kick in a few days earlier.

Among other big retailers, Old Navy had a succession of brief outages on December 20, and several chains (including Forever 21 and Lane Bryant) had short outages in the wee hours of December 24. Nothing compares to the major Amazon Cloud outage that knocked out Netflix on Christmas Eve but doesn't seem to have had an impact on any major retailers.

(Just for the record, Amazon itself hasn't had any downtime since mid-October.)

All this does suggest that big chains, at least, have finally gotten the hang of staying up for Christmas. That's happening just in time for another set of surprising statistics that surfaced in late December. After Comscore reported its Top 50 Web site traffic numbers for November, Retailing Today noticed that Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Sears all showed clear year-over-year drops in traffic. Comscore put Walmart at 55,857,000 unique visitors, down 4.5 percent from November 2011. Target was down 7 percent year-over-year, while Best Buy dropped 1.9 percent and Sears' sites dropped 6.7 percent.

Exactly why isn't clear; Retailing Today tossed off the suggestion that maybe it was due to improved conversion rates. We don't know whether that's happening. Actually, Comscore also showed a very slight overall drop in traffic year-over-year, led by a whopping 17.4 percent drop in traffic for toy retailers, which might account for the big chains' drops.

But it's an intriguing and highly counterintuitive idea: The more effective an E-Commerce site is at getting customers to buy right now, the less traffic will be logged. Every time a just-looking, empty-basket customer is turned into buyer, that's one less reason for the tire-kicker to return—which makes the traffic numbers look worse but the actual revenue numbers look better. We have a pretty good idea which one most chains would prefer.