Kohl's, Lowe's, Staples Start The Black Friday Crashes

Black Friday's largest E-tailers kept their pages loading nicely, for the most part, early on Friday (Nov. 27), with only a few chains—specifically Kohl's, Lowe's, Staples, Toys"R"Us, Sears, Home Depot, Victoria's Secret and Meijer—stumbling.

AlertBot reported that Home Depot crashed for one hour and seven minutes, ending at 5:09 AM New York time, but seemed to remain stable come daybreak. This timing raised the question of whether it was merely some last minute site fixes. AlertBot also reported that the Lowe's site was down for about seven minutes, ending at 2:39 PM New York time. Although the site did return, its page loads were quite slow.

Sears.com experienced neither outages nor severe page load slowdowns but shopping cart glitches, such as consumers placing items in their cart at one price and then finding the price had changed upon checkout. "Some people have been placing their orders and then they don't get their confirmation E-mails," said one customer representative at Sears.com, who asked that her name not be used. Customer service reps said they had been unable to get into the Web site's backend systems much of the day. "The site's been throwing out a lot of glitches," said the Sears representative.

Site traffic monitoring service Sitemorse reported that Toys"R"Us went down at about 11:07 AM New York time on Friday for 17 minutes, while Pingdom and AlertBot detected several issues with Meijer. Pingdom reported that Meijer suffered a 22-minute outage ending at 1:14 AM, a 20-minute outage ending at 2:04 AM and a 33-minute outage ending at 2:39 AM (all New York time).

AlertBot reported Meijer's first outage lasted 37 minutes, ending at 1:37 AM (New York time), with a second lasting 53 minutes, ending at 2:38 AM. The only cause that AlertBot reported was a generic "HTTP500 Server Script" error, which could include a wide range of server-side issues.

AlertBot also detected a 19-minute outage at Victoria's Secret's site, ending at 5:32 AM (New York time) on Friday.

The most significant initial glitches of Black Friday seemed to be owned by Staples and Kohl's, though. Staples was down much of the morning, displaying a screen that said "Oops, you're too early. Staples.com will be unavailable until 6 AM ET. Come back then and save big!"

That clearly seemed to be a deliberate shutdown, but the site went down again throughout much of the day, bizarrely displaying the same "come back after 6 AM" screen, although the 6:00 AM time had come and gone. In fact, the screen was seen in mid-afternoon and, when the site was up, page loads were quite slow.

Setting aside the post-6:00 AM glitches—which were clearly unintentional—the strategy of bringing the entire Staples site down is intriguing. Why cut off access to the entire site? Why not simply leave the site up—allowing routine sales to be processed—while keeping the Black Friday specials offline until the 6:00 AM witching hour?

Assuming it was indeed intentional—ignoring the deliciously cynical interpretation that the site had actually crashed and that the 6:00 AM slides were impromptu creations to make it look planned—the move was likely done with the idea of creating drama and suspense around Staples’ Black Friday activities, akin to what Apple does before select product launches.

But Apple—and perhaps Amazon—is a special case; it has consumers who are unusually brand-loyal. A consumer trying to visit Apple.com on an iPhone or iMac who encounters an issue is likely to return to the site in a few hours rather than visit via BlackBerry or check out Dell’s site. But consumers are rarely so loyal with other retail chains. It seems an unusual move. Then again, between midnight and 6:00 AM on Black Friday, it's not clear that there would have been a huge number of consumers around to alienate, so it might prove to be a wash.

Staples Spokesperson Mark Crowley E-mailed a response to questions about the site staying closed until 6:00 AM, although it wasn't overly explanatory. Staples Spokesperson Mark Crowley E-mailed a response to questions about the site staying closed until 6:00 AM, although it wasn't overly explanatory. "Staples.com was unavailable early this morning prior to 6:00 to enable everyone to have a fair opportunity to access our Black Friday deals at the same time," Crowley wrote. It was unclear why closing the rest of the Staples site—the parts housing offers that had nothing to do with Black Friday, such as the ones that populated the site on Wednesday (Nov. 25)—would have that effect. An E-mail reply request for clarification has yet to be answered.

The most significant outage seems to have been suffered by Kohl's. Various services reported issues with the Kohl's site, with outages greeting visitors throughout the day with a screen declaring "So sorry! Our team of elves is working hard to keep up with our holiday shoppers, but Kohls.com is not available at the moment. We're working to get the site back up and running smoothly for you. Please check back shortly to shop our great holiday deals." Kohl's told reporters that the problems were due to heavy traffic.

Matt Poepsel, the vice president for performance strategies at site performance tracking firm Gomez, said his team saw Kohl's experiencing "intermittent availability and slower response times" throughout the day, with page loads—excluding outages—almost three times slower than normal for the site, averaging "just more than six seconds."

AlertBot's Justin Noll said he believes that the Kohl's problems started at around midnight and that the site was at fault.

"In my opinion, Kohl's was not ready for Black Friday due to the performance problems that their users experienced around midnight as well as in the morning through the afternoon. Many of the tests that did pass during these times had response times between 5 and 30 seconds, when their normal response time is 400 to 500 milliseconds," Noll said. "Many retailers will load test (send a bunch of fake traffic) their Web sites to get ready for Black Friday to ensure they can handle the sudden surge in traffic. Either Kohl's received a lot more traffic then they expected or they didn't do the load testing."

Other than Kohl's and a few others, Gomez's Poepsel said most retail online "performances really held up pretty well" on Black Friday, with typically slower performers—including 1-800-Flowers and Drugstore.com—still reporting very slow page loads. Although he saw a lot of traffic on Black Friday, Poepsel expects many more problems on the so called Cyber Monday (Nov. 30). Cyber Monday never has been the highest E-Commerce traffic day of the season—an honor that typically falls in mid-December for most chains—but Poepsel still expects to see problems. "Here in the United States, most people don't usually think about holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving" and, given the overall distractions (many consumers not at their offices, relatives taking up far more time than they should, etc.), he thinks Monday will hit many sites hard.

Beyond the traffic incidents, there were a few problems reported with general site maintenance. Gareth Evans, the head of client services at Sitemorse, said his team spotted problems at both Sears and Nordstrom.

"Sears.com has a broken link trying to find an item and Nordstrom has a broken link to the page to pay their credit/debit card bill online," Evans said. "It's all about the fact that only monitoring availability and performance will be part of the story. Shipping a page with errors 100 percent of the time at great speed will still disappoint your potential clients if things then go wrong."

Keynote, another Web monitoring company, detected eight major retailers suffering major slowdowns, including one that suffered a hard crash and one that "had a massive slowdown," said Dan Berkowitz, Keynote's senior director of communications.

Asked why Keynote—unlike other firms—wouldn't identify the chains that they found to have problems, he said it was a change in policy. "We're not being the Bad News Bears any more," he said.

But he did do a little Bad News Bearing by saying that his team found significant problems with Mypoints.com, a service that acts as a service to major retailers.