Target's New Site: Where's The New?

After two years of development featuring more than 20 vendors, rolled out its first independent Web site in 10 years, after its split from Amazon. Although trumpeting advances in customization, merged channel and improved checkout, the site itself—and Target officials—shows no evidence of any functionality that differs from what other retail sites have offered for years.

The dream—and nightmare—of every E-Commerce head is to start over from scratch, scrap all the legacy kludges that developers have been working around for years and build a Web site that does exactly what the chain wants. Most retailers will never be able to cost-justify that greenfield approach, of course. Target's site, however, had to be built from scratch because its decade-long deal with Amazon to operate its online business had expired.

Unfortunately, the new is all potential at its launch. Target doesn't want to tip its hand about future plans and give competitors an advantage. But there are tantalizing hints of what's baked into Target's new architecture in some of features of the Web site that, frankly, don't seem to make sense any other way.

(Frank Hayes column this week looks at how forgot about one group: It's customers.

The site itself is certainly well-designed and attractive, but it also sports quite a few pages that glitched or included basic functionality that seems to not make sense. Google ads, for example, appear on some pages touting sales from Sears and JCPenney. A Target executive said allowing ads for key rivals was a business decision, implying that it was not an oversight, although no explanation was offered for the move. It seems unlikely that ad revenue from such small ads would be a reason for Target to allow them.

Another unusual element of the site—code-named Everest—is that it times out on customers who are inactive for more than 30 minutes, at which point it warns visitors that their sessions are about to be closed. Such a session approach is key to an aggressive personalization site strategy, but the warnings happen with visitors who have not signed in. For those visitors, the warning has no purpose because functionality doesn't change, said Phil McKoy, VP Target Technology Services, who offered no reason why the warnings would even appear for consumers who are not signed in.

Any site this complex is guaranteed to have its share of minor glitches, and is no exception. Users complained that wedding registry editing didn't work and that the site couldn't track existing orders. That last problem is also troublesome.That last problem is also troublesome, and it illustrates one of the biggest challenges Target faces. This is indeed an entirely new site, but it also has to jump into tens of millions of in-process transactions from the nation's third-largest retailer.

The site, which launched about 1:30 AM New York time on Tuesday (Aug. 23), featured a Daily Deals countdown clock on the homepage. When it launched, the clock was working but the link just generated an error if someone clicked. On Wednesday, the link worked fine but the countdown clock stopped showing the days and times of its countdown.

The new launch seems to be relying heavily on security-by-obscurity, but the obscurity isn't all that obscure. For example, shortly before the new site launched, Target displayed a page telling people the site was down and the new one was about to be launched. The source of that holding page displayed the URL for the staging site for the new, an area that remained un-password-protected almost two days after the launch.

A nice touch on the site is the Woof Page, which is an error page that says "Woof! We are suddenly extremely popular. You may not be able to access our site momentarily due to unusually high traffic. Please stay here and we'll try to get you in as soon as we can." The user doesn't need to reload the page. When the site can handle another visitor, the page automatically refreshes itself and delivers the homepage.

Target's McKoy said that feature is just part of the initial site's growing pains.

Pressed for any example of customization that would set the new site apart from its key rivals, Target spokesperson Morgan O'Murray E-mailed: "One example is in the near future if you have a baby registry, the baby homepage customizes to show the right information for the correct age of the baby."

There are two concerns with that example. First, that functionality has been widely used by Amazon and many other sites for quite a few years. It's clearly not setting Target apart. Second, that's not even part of the site launch; O'Murray said it was "in the near future." Neither O'Murray nor McKoy could—or would—cite any specific thing the new site can do that illustrates Target's stated push for personalization, improved security and streamlined cart and checkout.

McKoy also stressed the new site's merged-channel capabilities but, there again, no specific examples were offered of anything the new site would enable customers to do in-store or on a mobile device that they can't already do, either on or with other major retail sites. He ruled out price customization, but he wouldn't specify what the site is doing.

When asked if the customization was based on cookie-tracking, session tracking, existing CRM history or history of customers starting with day one of the new site, McKoy said "it's based on all of those interactions that we've had with guests."