New Forgot The Customers

When Target's development team launched the new on Tuesday (Aug. 23) after two years of development, it must have felt like a dream come true. But it wasn't—at least not for customers, who discovered that big chunks of the new site didn't work at all, and almost nothing worked as well as the site they'd seen a day or two before. A very dangerous telltale sign: One of the most common hashtags on Twitter posts about the new E-Commerce site was #FAIL.

Why? What went wrong? Actually, not much, from the point of view of experienced developers. Naturally the site had glitches—that's to be expected. And Target's plan of starting with a new site that had the same basic functionality as the old site, and only later rolling out exciting new features supported by what's baked into the new architecture, was a solid development approach. Unfortunately, although that plan worked very well for developers, it made no sense at all to customers—the people any E-Commerce site is supposed to be all about.

Target forgot the first rule of customer-facing development in retail IT: Customers expect a new E-Commerce site (or kiosk or POS system or loyalty program) to work better than the old one did. If the old one worked fine, and the new one doesn't work as well, what's the point?

Of course, in Target's case, the point was regaining control of its E-Commerce destiny. From 2001 until this month, was run by Amazon. Target decided to end that arrangement two years ago—and that meant it had a completely blank slate to start from in creating a new site.

Most E-Commerce execs would love that opportunity to shed all the legacy code, the decade or so of kludges, workarounds and hacks that make it so difficult to do anything really innovative. All that old junk makes new approaches next to impossible.

But cost-justifying greenfield development when a retailer has already paid for an E-Commerce site that works? Not in the cards. That's why most "new" E-Commerce sites are really just a new coat of paint—underneath is the same crusty old infrastructure.

Then again, that crusty old code does work. So when a retailer rolls out a refreshed site, customers see a few new features on top of the same old stuff. And the same-old, same-old still works fine.

That dream of a from-scratch new Web site will always be a daydream for most E-Commerce execs. And Target's experience demonstrates why that's a good thing.

No question, Target got the chance to do it right, from the ground up. But there's a downside.No question, Target got the chance to do it right, from the ground up. The downside: Target had to do it right from the ground up. There was no legacy code to get in the way—but there was also no legacy code that worked, stress-tested in actual use for years. If a new feature was too buggy, there was no old version to fall back on.

Target's developers understood that. They figured it was OK. The site would go live, they'd work the kinks out as quickly as possible, soon there would be all sorts of great new stuff built on the wonderful infrastructure that was still invisible on opening day, and everyone would understand—right?

No. Customers neither knew nor cared that the new Web site was the product of two years of loving development and was bound to have a few hiccups at first. It didn't matter to them that Target had to build from scratch because of the end of the Amazon deal or that all sorts of wonderful new features would be coming once the site was stable.

All that customers saw was that their passwords, which worked fine on Monday, didn't work on Tuesday. They couldn't edit their wedding registry lists. They could no longer track orders they had paid for a day or two before.

From a Target customer's point of view, that's one seriously broken E-Commerce site.

Any customer who wasn't facing those big issues was still likely to be annoyed by the new on opening day. The site was very pretty, but it wasn't very useful for regular customers. The weekly newspaper ad wasn't showing up. Neither were coupons. A large digital countdown clock on the homepage (and extremely long homepage) warned that today's Daily Deals would end in so many hours, minutes and seconds—but the link went nowhere.

In fact, lots of the links were dead ends—delivering customers to very pretty error pages featuring Target's mascot dog. (There's a downside to using pictures of a dog mascot all over your site, including error pages: At a certain point, customers are likely to start really hating the sight of that little dog.)

No doubt all of that will soon be fixed. Much of the site was working far better on Wednesday than on Tuesday. But it will take a lot longer before customers feel like the new site is as good as the old one was—which, of course, means better than the old one.

And until then, that greenfield site isn't going to be any retailer's dream.