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The Whir

Noise Filter: Black Friday and Cyber Monday Challenge Online Retailers

October 30, 2009, The Whir

Every now and then, a controversial issue triggers a flood of online discourse. For our Noise Filter feature, the WHIR pans the raging rivers of opinion for shining nuggets of useful commentary.

(WEB HOST INDUSTRY REVIEW) -- "Black Friday," the day when brick-and-mortar retailers are flooded with shoppers (supposedly turning their balance sheet ink from red to black), has also been a mixed blessing for online retailers, who have to deal with a massive increase in web traffic.

With Black Friday typically the second busiest online shopping day, "Cyber Monday," the Monday following Black Friday, is usually the first. Shop.org has predicted that more than half of US office workers with web access will be shopping from their desks. To say nothing of the problem of shopping online at work, the massive number of online shoppers leads many websites to suffer outages.

And history seemed destined to repeat itself this year. Last week, website monitoring firm Uptrends (www.uptrends.com) released the results of a month-long study that found many online retailers were unable to handle traffic leading up to Black Friday.

Last year, downtime on Sears' online shopping site on Black Friday morning made it one of the first online retailers to fall prey to the holiday shopping rush.

Also, Keynote Competitive Research, the industry analysis group of on-demand mobile and Internet test & measurement solutions provider Keynote Systems observed that leading holiday shopping websites last year experienced slowdowns in its "online holiday shopping index," which tracks top retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer. Across the index, sites slowed down to 70 percent of their normal download speeds on average.

This year, Keynote found that nearly all of the online retail sites on its online retail shopping index showed slowdowns on Black Friday, but, most of them weathered the storm very well. Others, however, crumbled under the pressure. Keynote competitive research director Ben Rushlo notes:

Overall the quality of the sites tracked on Black Friday improved this year over last, with fewer showing major outages and issues impacting a large number of users. The best performing sites overall were Wal-Mart, Sears and Barnes & Noble. Each of these sites did very well during the Black Friday period (6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST). Overall, Wal-Mart was the most stable site, showing not a single error (100% availability for the day) and very little slowdown. Wal-Mart has struggled in the past with Black Friday traffic, but this year they got it right, offering their customers a consistently fast and reliable experience. Wal-Mart and the other good quality sites prove that with proper planning, load testing and focus it is possible to offer customers a pleasant online experience even when customer volume is the highest.

Online marketplace Buy.com has reported that this Black Friday has been its biggest ever, with with 120 percent more orders compared to last year, and third-party retailers accounting for more than 30 percent of Buy.com's total site orders. Buy.com chief executive officer and president Neel Grover explains:

Our performance on Black Friday demonstrates that while shoppers are looking for the lowest prices and the best return on their dollar, they also are feeling more confident than last year. Consumers can continue to rely on Buy.com for exclusive deals, free shipping and an enjoyable online shopping experience throughout the holiday season and beyond.

Online availability and performance monitoring firm WebSitePulse (www.websitepulse.com) found that Sears.com's performance, while not perfect, improved from last year. Also, Kmart.com and BestBuy.com also had downtime issues. WebSitePulse writes:

The websites of Sears.com and Kmart.com are closed for online shoppers more than 50% of the time for Sears.com and 20% of the time for Kmart.com as of 12pm on Black Friday. The websites display a message on the home pages explaining that they are 'temporarily experiencing high traffic volume'. The problems started around 9:40am EST and continue as we post this announcement.

BestBuy.com also experiences some problems with their checkout process. Again, more than 50% of our test transactions which are performed every 15 minutes from 3 US cities fail at checkout.

Update: Sears.com ended the day a lot better than last year with only 3 hours and 48 minutes of downtime vs. 7 hours and 30 minutes in 2007. Kmart.com either received extra capacity or the online shoppers abandoned the website, because it performed much better after 12pm with total downtime for the day of 35 minutes. BestBuy.com continued to have issues with their checkout process for the rest of the day, with resulted in 18.5% failure rate of our transactional tests."

Online research firm comScore (www.comscore.com) reported that $10.57 billion has been spent online in the first 27 days of the November/December 2009 holiday season ending on Black Friday, marking a 3 percent increase versus the corresponding days last year. Black Friday itself drew $595 million in online sales, making it the second heaviest online spending day to date in 2009 and representing an 11 percent increase compared to last year's Black Friday. comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni said:

The $595 million in online spending this Black Friday represents the second heaviest online spending day of the season-to-date and a double-digit increase from last year. While this acceleration in spending suggests the online holiday season may be shaping up slightly more optimistically than anticipated, it may also reflect the heavy discounting and creative promotions being put forth by retailers that now encompass the use of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Cyber Monday – the traditional kick-off to the online holiday shopping season – and the subsequent weeks will be the real test for how online retailers fare this season. That said, this is a very encouraging start.