J.C. Penney Says It Experienced "Some Order Issues" on Monday

J.C. Penney sent an E-mail to some customers on Tuesday (Dec. 1) that said "Due to overwhelming site volume, jcp.com experienced some order issues last night," an apparent reference to Monday (Nov. 30) night. It then offered to extend a free shipping offer—especially squeamish readers may not want to read the next quote—"to show that we are still here for you."

A J.C. Penney representative on Wednesday (Dec. 2) night blamed the glitch on high traffic. "Due to the overwhelming customer response to our Cyber Monday deals, the checkout portion of the site slowed down Monday night into early Tuesday morning and, in some cases, customers were unable to complete their orders," said J.C. Penney spokesperson Tim Lyons. "To make up for any inconvenience this caused our customers, we extended the Cyber Monday pricing and ‘free shipping on $25 or more’ offer through Tuesday night."

Lyons added that the chain's people tried to reach out to those customers and prospects to encourage them to come back and complete their halted orders.

"We were actively in touch with customers through our call centers, online customer service and through our Facebook and Twitter channels throughout yesterday (Dec. 1), ensuring that we minimized the impact and that customers were able to complete their orders with the Cyber Monday pricing and free shipping offer," Lyons said. "We have corrected the problem and jcp.com should not experience any further issues. Thankfully, it was a short-lived issue."

Of all the areas of an E-Commerce site, checkout is the most complex and, therefore, the most prone to glitches. But it's also the most dangerous, because customers are not always sure if they actually made their purchases. The risk to consumers intensifies when the problem is a slowdown—as opposed to a crash—which is what J.C. Penney said happened.

Do customers assume the item is coming? Do they try ordering again? Do they hit a rival's Web site and buy the products there? And what happens if two of the same products eventually arrive? Would J.C. Penney have accepted the return and paid for return shipment?

Also, it's hard to not appreciate J.C. Penney's "due to overwhelming site volume" wording. It's like those recorded hold messages that attribute the problem to "the extreme popularity of our product." I'll offer all of my purchases to the first company that says on its hold recording: "We apologize for the lengthy hold, but we're too cheap to hire enough people for our call center. And if you think this hold time is long, try choosing the 'if you want to terminate your purchase' option. We have one rep covering all of North America, she doesn't hear that well anymore and she takes 4-hour coffee breaks."

Instead of attributing the glitch to too many customers, maybe J.C. Penney could have said that it didn’t plan for sufficient bandwidth or didn't discover various issues that volume can reveal, such as--as one astute reader suggested--coding issues, caching issues with popular content,3rd party site partners like tax computation providers, or credit card authorization providers, etc.? (A guy can dream, can't he?)

Maybe we should extrapolate some good advice out of this. A tip to all CIOs and E-Commerce directors: The next time there's a huge site outage or slowdown during the holidays and you're called in front of the CEO to explain how it happened, say, "Our site is simply far too popular, sir. This is the fault of engineering and marketing. I hate to point fingers, but they made our products too good and told too many people about them. But I don't know if disciplinary action is needed. A mere reprimand will likely be sufficient. Is there anything else?" Yeah, see how well that plays.

Technical issues have become a common theme this week, with retailers "apologizing" for site problems with free shipping extensions. But is this option a true apology, or is it crass marketing? Why not extend it for 2 or 3 days as opposed to a handful of hours? The last-minute extension smacks of trying to pressure consumers into impulse purchases. Some might be so cynical as to question whether a glitch even happened (not us, though, but someone else might.) Joann.com also sent out a similar offer, E-mailing customers and saying that "we're aware it was a challenge to shop Joann.com this weekend" and then briefly extending its sale and free shipping.