Sears.com Melts Down On Black Friday, But Costco, Walmart, Saks and Kmart Have Issues, Too

Sears.com suffered the worst Web problems on Black Friday (Nov. 28), experiencing a series of complete site crashes for much of the day. Although no other major retailer came close, according to preliminary reports, many of the industry's largest merchants suffered site slowdowns or other Web problems, including Walmart, Kmart, Saks, Overstock, Amazon, Target, Kohl's, Costco and Buy.com.

Sears.com was "completely offline," said Shawn White, director of operations at site performance monitoring company Keynote Systems. "And if anybody made it through without getting redirected (to a placeholder page that said the site was experiencing load-related difficulties), their experience would have just been horrendously slow. Slow to the point they would have walked away."

Sears spokesman Tom Aiello insisted on Monday (Dec. 2) the site never truly crashed on Friday, despite characterizations by several site-monitoring companies that said Sears.com did just that. Aiello conceded the site suffered intermittent "service disruptions" due to higher than expected peak volume, a far more generous appraisal than that offered Friday by Keynote's White and others.

"We were getting sales throughout the day on Sears.com," Aiello said.

The two statements are not necessarily in conflict, of course. Periodic outages would not prevent some online sales from slipping through.

Keynote detected the Sears.com problem beginning at about 9:20 AM New York time Friday (Nov. 28), with a gradual slowdown of the multi-step ordering process. White said the time required for completing that process, normally between 5 and 18 seconds, reached 86 seconds before the site finally gave up altogether by about 10:30 AM.

Keynote reached no conclusion about what caused the Sears crash, other than pointing out that the problems were mostly HTTP 500 errors, indicating a "configuration glitch somewhere in the back-end." Given the different way many sites configure their servers, that didn't shed much practical light on the cause.

"Scheduled Maintenance"

Among the first big brand Web sites to show problems was Walmart.com, which greeted some visitors with a "scheduled maintenance" announcement during the early morning. Walmart.com's typical performance was disrupted during the period of 5 to 7 AM New York time Friday, according to tests by site performance company Gomez.

Gomez said Walmart.com's response time at 4 AM was 27 seconds, but that slowed to nearly a full minute by 5 AM. Keynote's White speculated that Walmart was doing some last-minute housekeeping before the big rush of Black Friday shoppers. But he agreed it was unlikely that Walmart would have planned to go down on the morning of Black Friday. Rather, it more likely opted to schedule such an effort the prior day, which was Thanksgiving in the United States and a major U.S. holiday, when traffic was expected to be much lighter.

During the outage, Walmart apparently switched many—if not all—of its content from its own servers to Akamai, Keynote reported. "We're now seeing Akamai server names where Walmart had been serving up their own images before" the early morning shutdown, said Keynote's White.

Starting at about 5:20 AM, online shoppers proceeding through the checkout process of Walmart's online retail site would have encountered an HTTP 500 error when clicking on the "Proceed to Checkout" button. Accessing, searching and browsing the online store was fast and reliable as was adding items to the online shopping cart, Keynote reported. It was only when the shopper was ready to commit to a purchase that the person would have been locked out.

This lasted until approximately 6:14 AM New York time, after which Walmart.com posted a "Scheduled Maintenance" notification on its homepage saying, "Walmart is temporarily unavailable while we make important upgrades to our site. We appreciate your patience and invite you to return soon."

During this time, access to the online store was not available. This downtime lasted until 6:53 AM. After that, no major problems involving Walmart.com were reported.

Overloads And Time-Outs

Visitors to BarnesAndNoble.com encountered some problems early in the day, according to London-based site monitoring company Sitemorse. Black Friday induced "quite an overload" at that book-selling site beginning at about 7 AM New York time and it became progressively worse until about noon, when the site began to work better, said Jon Ribbens, Sitemorse technical director.

"They're still getting time-outs and things," said Ribbens at about 1 PM New York time. "The site is overloaded and slow, so some people will see it as being down and some will see it as up. It's exhibiting fairly random behavior and it clearly has problems, but not to the point of being down where it can't take any orders."

Amazon.com and Buy.com also experienced difficulties, which Keynote's White found surprising, given both firms' history of accurate traffic predictions and allocations. "Buy.com was a little interesting (in that) it's a traditional online Web retailer so they know what was going to be going on during Black Friday. But from around 5:53 AM New York time through 11 AM, their performance went from 25 seconds to complete a transaction to 58 seconds."

White said Buy.com's general site availability began declining rapidly at about 10:50 AM, plummeting from 100 percent to 75 percent for about two hours before returning to 100 percent by 1:50 PM. "When we drilled deeper, the availability problem was primarily due to slowdowns," he said. "We wait about five minutes before giving up. So for 25 percent of the time during that two-hour window, users were unable to access or complete the purchase process."

Buy.com's checkout performance at times was about four times slower than typical, White said, lumping them with several other major sites—including Costco and Sears—who saw major checkout problems. Other sites, including Amazon, had the opposite issue, with many routine site images taking much longer to load, but the checkout worked well.

White said Amazon.com suffered "minor performance issues between 9:40 AM and 10 AM New York time. White noted the problem simultaneously affected Target.com because Amazon hosts that site. "These were not errors like at Buy.com or Sears.com," he said. "With Amazon and Target, the sites were responding and images were downloading, but it was just really, really slow."

Overstock.com was "demonstrating slower response times" during the day and "recent measurements have been as much as four times slower than their typical (strong) performance," said Matthew Poepsel, Gomez's vice president of performance strategies. "The slowdowns began just before 10 AM" New York time and continued throughout the day, he said.

Other Annoyances

Quite a few reports of problems probably caused at least annoyance on the part of online bargain-hunters:
  • K-mart's site availability was sporadic all day, reported Sitemorse.
  • Costco experienced server response delays starting at 4 PM New York time, with the site's 20-second response time increasing to 30 seconds. "Availability was 94 percent from midnight to 4 PM, then it started degrading until it went all out," said Gomez spokeswoman Samantha McGarry. Keynote reported the Costco slowdown starting at about 3 PM New York time, with availability dropping to 30 percent. Costco fared much better at Saturday, but still averaged only a 91 percent availability, the lowest in the list tracked by Gomez.
  • Hewlett-Packard's E-Commerce site enjoyed about two hours' worth of slowdowns, with end-to-end transaction time going from 14.6 seconds at 8 AM New York time to 57 seconds at 10 AM, reported Gomez.
  • Kohl's had minor slowdowns, Keynote said.
  • Saks Fifth Avenue had intermittent problems throughout the day, including uneven response times and an error message in its top banner spot, Gomez said. Keynote noted Saks problems from 7:30 AM to 1 PM (New York time) on Friday, with availability dropping to 50 percent. "It looks like just traffic," White said.
  • Wegmans.com crashed for several hours on Sunday, with Keynote reporting that it was not the Wegmans site but their ISP that had apparently crashed.


    Very early in the day, Sitemorse reported an availability problem with Nordstrom, but it later withdrew that report. "There was bit of a problem when we set it up. We had 110 monitors on all at once and sometimes it requires a bit of configuration to get it right," said Sitemorse Technical Director Jon Ribbens. "With Nordstrom, there was a loop caused by cookies at their site. It shouldn't have been indicated as being down. It was more of a minor problem."

    On the non-retail end, there was Hallmark.com. Consumers trying to open their post-Thanksgiving Day Hallmark electronic greeting cards got greeted instead with "We're sorry! Hallmark.com is unavailable." The site blamed its problems not on Black Friday craziness but on "making improvements." One would think a greeting card company could be more creative.

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