Rite-Aid Site Outage Reveals More About Perspective Than Uptime

On Tuesday and Wednesday (Jan. 4 and 5), Riteaid.com suffered a series of major outages, ranging in duration from 12 hours (Rite-Aid's position) to about 30 hours (site downtime tracking firms). [Update: The outages at Rite-Aid resumed again on Thursday and were still continuing Monday afternoon (Jan. 10).] But the most revealing data came from a Rite-Aid corporate person when asked about the outages: "How did you learn about it?"

Although initially this sounds like a perfectly reasonable question, it is based on the dangerous assumption that a $26 billion, 4,800-store retail chain can crash repeatedly during two weekdays and people won't notice. How did we learn about it? Two site tracking services, readers visiting the site, our visiting the site and multiple Twitter messages (including one from Rite-Aid itself). But how you learn about an outage is irrelevant. Retailers have to assume that customers (and, for what it's worth, competitors and investors) know about their crashes, and they need to be able to explain them. Rite-Aid didn't. And that was Problem Two.

The problems began about 10 A.M. (New York time) on Tuesday when Riteaid.com stopped responding. (When we visited the site, no "we're having problems" page was displayed. The site simply wouldn't respond.) AlertBot was the first site to detect the issue, reporting that the pharmacy chain's site "did not respond to any connection attempts and is completely unavailable." It reported the site back up at 1:42 P.M., only to see it crash again about 18 minutes later—and to then continually crash off and on until about 4 P.M. Wednesday.

AlertBot tweeted that the outages have driven Rite-Aid's uptime for the year down to 77 percent. But the year is still awfully young. Then again, AlertBot tweeted that fact many hours before the outages stopped. Added AlertBot's Justin Noll: "It's hard to speculate what the problem could be, but most IT departments have a plan in place in case there is a major failure. Apparently, Rite-Aid doesn't."

To be fair, Rite-Aid may indeed have such a plan. But the invisibility of that effort was Noll's point, and it's a good one. When Rite-Aid tweeted a response to a customer ("We are working hard to resolve the issue with Riteaid.com. We will let you know when it's back up. Thanks for your patience."), it didn't say what was behind the outage. And it never did. Neither did Rite-Aid public relations manager Ashley Flower, who released the 12-hour figure.

That is a tragically missed opportunity. Outages can be caused by a lot of favorable attention to a site (excessive popularity can be a bad thing) and by an attempt to improve the customer experience through new functionality. Customers can be forgiving if these outages are explained, honestly and quickly. But acknowledging the outage without offering an explanation is an outgrowth of the "won't notice and won't care" belief. Such a belief is potentially more damaging than a floor full of malfunctioning Web servers.

Crashed sites do more damage than merely forcing your customers to go elsewhere—into the welcome virtual arms of CVS, Walgreens or Wal-Mart, for example. They raise perception issues, which make customers wonder what else may be going wrong—a really bad thing in the heads of people who trust you with their most private medical data. The trick is that even a not-so-flattering explanation ("We had a cascading hardware failure because we didn't monitor our systems closely enough") is going to be better than silence. It stops the speculation and customer fears.

If Rite-Aid suddenly locked the doors of dozens of its stores in key markets, do you think there's any way it would refuse to offer an explanation when those doors re-opened? And if it indeed so refused, why wouldn't its customers fear that the chain might do it again next week?

Why would Rite-Aid think it could get away with that very same thing in E-Commerce? Retailers must treat their online operations—and mobile operations—just as they do their brick-and-mortar stores. If they don't, they might suddenly have a legitimate reason to ask, "How did you know we were down?" The reason: Customers have stopped visiting.