Staples' Web Site: That Wasn't Easy

Years ago, I was talking with the CEO of a major privately held consumer products company. He casually mentioned that he would never again work for a publicly held company.

Asked why, he said, "For the life of me, I can't think why I would want to publicly air all of our mistakes if I didn't have to."

Although it is indeed a publicly held company, Staples' e-commerce glitch on Monday had nothing to do with Wall Street. Ironically, its PR problem was a result of aggressive PR. Put another way, it decided to be an especially public company and learned why that is not always a great idea.

Several weeks ago, Staples began contacting media covering e-commerce?including Its pitch: Staples was radically designing its e-commerce Web site.

The site changes were nice?such as a system that flags essential accessories?but they weren't especially unusual. The most intriguing capability involved multichannel, where the Web site could reflect purchases made by the customers on the phone, from their catalog.

But that capability didn't extend to the physical stores. In other words, a visitor to the Web site wouldn't be told the dimensions of the envelope labels he/she typically buys at a Staples store.

In briefings, Staples officials stressed how they streamlined their site (reducing the number of categories from 25 to 17), made reordering easier, facilitated coupon use and added a lot more explanatory information about products.

But during the demonstration briefing?performed on the $13 billion retailer's staging server?the site frequently glitched and froze. That's OK, we were told, it's still being fine-tuned.

On Friday, PR agency people were still pushing the story and encouraging stories to be written to publish Monday morning, to coincide with the launch.

On Monday, though, a different e-mail was sent: "The Staples site did not launch today because the Staples team felt that the site did not meet the service standards for Staples customers. It will be launching in the near future."

A subsequent e-mail from Staples PR Manager Owen Davis said the problem was that the site's performance hadn't improve enough: "When we made it available to customers over the weekend, it wasn't consistently providing the outstanding response times our loyal customers expect, so we elected to postpone the launch."

In non-PR speak, the site was crawling at an even more glacial pace than they thought they could get away with.

Putting aside the PR lesson that prebriefing reporters to coincide with an event that is out of your control is remarkably risky, there are lessons here for any e-commerce player.

The first key lesson is one where I have to give Staples well-deserved credit. In a lesson that Microsoft and Mercedes should have learned by now, cramming a bunch of great features into a product isn't a great idea if it causes performance to drag.

Mercedes puts out one of the best cars in the world, with the best ride and the most wonderful features and accessories, but the electronics fail so often that hardly anyone wants to buy them. When it works well, it's stupendous. But people care more about how the car drives when it's not doing so well.

Microsoft crams it OS and its Office suite with tons of interesting features, but the typical user doesn't touch the vast majority of them. For those users, the unnecessary capabilities do little other than take up space and degrade performance.

Someone at Staples came to the same conclusion. The ability to more easily use a coupon doesn't amount to much if the site takes too long to make a purchase.

E-commerce sites must first focus on response times and making sure that the most basic fundamental capabilities (search, purchase, compare, log-in, etc.) work flawlessly 99.99 percent of the time.

Staples' trademarked tagline is "Staples. That Was Easy." I have to give credit where it's due. In today's bitter e-commerce rivalries, to prebrief reporters and then to suspend a new site because its response times are inadequate isn't easy. It's gutsy. And it's the right thing to do.