An Ocean Apart: Why A U.K. Retailer Handled A Site Glitch So Differently

When an order processing snafu shut down the delivery operations of one of the U.K.'s largest grocery chains, the $38 billion retailer acted starkly different than the typical U.S. retailer.

The London-based 823-store Sainsbury's grocery chain immediately issued almost a half-million dollars' worth of £10 (roughly equivalent to $20) vouchers to some 30,000 disgruntled customers and personally--through staff volunteers and no software automation—called every one of those 30,000 to apologize and tell them about the vouchers. All of this for a 2-day glitch that the chain said didn't even inconvenience customers much, as the glitch was limited to isolated shipments from its Web site.

"When the extent of the problem was realized, we asked for volunteers to help the online team contact our customers personally," Sainsbury's spokeswoman Cheryl Kuczynski said. "There was a great response from colleagues and the phoning was done personally to our customers. The voucher can only be spent online and customers were very understanding about the technical glitch. They were pleased that we phoned them individually to alert them to the situation and most people put in their usual order when the site was re-opened."

On a typical day, Sainsbury's customers use to order their eggs, milk and other products, which are later delivered to them. But on June 17, a glitch in the site's processing system stopped orders from coming in, forcing Sainsbury's to halt its order system until it could solve the mishap.

And for 48 hours, instead of the easy-to-use online grocery ordering site they're used to, customers were met with this message: "We have temporarily frozen our online home delivery website having identified a technical issue. We are contacting customers directly whose deliveries have been affected. We apologize for any inconvenience this causes you."

Sainsbury's spokeswoman Gillian Taylor said that although this failure clearly left customers grocery-less, she said most customers who do online shopping also shop in-store. "We believe that many customers whose orders have not been fulfilled have indeed been going into our stores and therefore the impact on the business is minimal," she said.

Contrast the way Sainsbury's dealt with its outage and how dealt with a series of outages earlier this month. Amazon said that it knew what caused its outages but wouldn't say what they were and no apologies, credits, vouchers or phone calls were offered.

Amazon's reaction to its outages seems to be sadly typical of what most major E-Commerce players have done in the U.S. It's hardly worth asking the question of which strategy is likely to deliver a better long-term benefit for the retailer.

Are American consumers so cynical that we have come to expect such, well, lack of courtesy? How many retail execs would have even thought about taking the kind of personal and immediate action that Sainsbury's took?

"To have a company care that you had a bad experience online, that's mind blowing," said Ben Rushlo, a senior manager with Keynote Systems, a firm that tracks Web site performance. Rushlo then added, as though to explain American business attitudes: "Our culture is not a customer service culture."

Indeed. But is that by design or by carelessness? Are retailers weighing the pros and cons and choosing to treat customers this way during an outage? Or, as is perhaps more likely, is no one outside of IT planning on outages and making any contingency plans?

Retailers have detailed plans for disasters ranging from hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. And yet the much more common site crash hits everyone outside of IT as though it were the most unanticipated event since T-Rex and Triceratops met Alvin the Asteroid.

Even if the American E-Commerce consumer is so beaten up as to not expect these kinds of courtesies, is that a reason to not offer them? Indeed, wouldn't that make the first—and the few—who do truly put the customer up top have that much more of an impact? As E-Commerce sites start to merge and shut down, having a few extra bags of customer loyalty is probably not going to be such a bad thing.