Macy's Clever Crash Screen

What goes up must come down, says the E-Commerce owner's manual, and it's quite true. But what separates the mainframes from the PDAs is how retailers handle those inevitable crashes. Macy's this weekend showed some nice creativity in dealing with what will, at some point, happen to all sites. And its cleverness suggests some other great ideas for dealing with the crashes that will invariably occur this holiday season.

The Macy's crash itself was unremarkable, having lasted barely an hour on a Sunday morning (Oct. 17), which is how all well-mannered outages should behave. Site visitors were shown a screen with a headline warning of a "temporary shopping jam" and a message that blamed the difficulties on "heavier traffic than normal." More interestingly, though, the screen had a striking 10-second countdown animation, with visitors instructed to wait 10 seconds and then refresh. But that refresh might need to be done a few times.

It's arguably the most effective way to get visitors to stick around a little while, and it gives your site the best chance to hold on to those customers if things clean up quickly. Macy's approach would have kept visitors for the whole hour, but it's sort of like those pedestrian buttons on traffic lights. Although some might work, most are primarily there to give people something to do while waiting to cross.

There's no debate that most of your E-Commerce team needs to focus on the goal of making sure your site doesn't crash and, when it does, making sure that crash lasts as little time as possible. It's not a bad idea, though, to also create a small group tasked with coming up with contingency plans—ways to retain customers when the unavoidable happens. Call it the I-Team, for a group dealing with that which is Inevitable, and consider it an exercise for your team.

Here's a key question to ask: Will your mobile site serve as an emergency backup site to support at least some of your E-Commerce transactions? It very well might, depending on how that site was constructed, as American Eagle Outfitters recently learned (by not using its mobile site, because it couldn't) and Rite-Aid is experimenting with right now.

However, there are more creative options than falling back on mobile. If you can still display a screen, taking a page from Macy's and getting customers to stick around—while also pointing out the 800 number for customer service, which can still take orders—is a great idea. But why not make the incentive more concrete?

What if the screen said "We are so sorry for the glitch. We want to make it up to you, our loyal customers, who are suffering through this hopefully short problem. If you phone (or text or E-mail) customer service right now, while this outage is happening, we'll give you a $25 gift certificate. If the outage lasts more than two hours (and if you message us within 10 minutes of the outage being repaired), we'll double your gift to $50."

Before you go crazy on me, let's look at the likely impact. Customers who see such a message will be quite likely to phone in to get the gift certificate. While on the phone, they can probably be convinced to complete their original purchase. Sale saved.

What about that double part? This incentive will strongly encourage customers to return to the site every few minutes, so they can get that $50 gift card. More sales saved. Friends will be contacted and told to do the same. Heck, your outage might be the best marketing move of the quarter.

Yes, yes, I know. Someone has to pay for all those gift certificates. Setting aside the reality that most consumers will spend more than the value of the gift card, as well as the fact that you have just reversed what could have been a substantial number of lost sales and possibly denied your rivals of angry consumers they could steal, there is still going to be a hard out-of-pocket cost. How do you raise that money?

What about a slush fund to pay the bonuses of the people whose job it was to prevent or eliminate site outages? The more minutes of downtime, the fewer dollars left to give those team members. Sounds like a nice way to simultaneously reduce outages and increase sales during those outages.

Even better, offer to have those "outage" gift certificates instantly E-mailed or messaged. That way, beyond driving customers to your call center or to mobile or to return to your site in two hours, you can also drive them to a local brick-and-mortar, where you might increase the value of the gift cards yet again.