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Hallmark.com can't greet all online visitors

Too much holiday cheer forces the company to turn some visitors away after a crush of customers looking for free online greeting cards swamps the site.

Too much holiday cheer forced Hallmark.com to turn away some visitors after a crush of customers looking for free online greeting cards swamped the site. It was one of the first instances this year of traffic overwhelming a Web site--once considered a fairly common occurrence during the holiday season.

On Thursday and Friday, some visitors were greeted with the following message: "Our apologies. We are currently experiencing heavy traffic on our site and are unable to allow additional visits at this time."

The message then directs visitors to a 1-800 number for Hallmark Flowers and to two other Web sites that sell gift certificates and gourmet treats.

Hallmark spokeswoman Kathi Mishek said traffic has been triple its normal level at this time of year over the last few days, exceeding the capacity of its systems. Traffic to Hallmark.com, which doesn't charge for e-greetings, has doubled this year since competitor American Greetings began charging for electronic greetings earlier this month.

But Mishek said the problem has been minimal and that visitors should just try again.

"Quite frankly, people are getting in within a couple of minutes," said Mishek, who added that the company is not going to increase the capacity of the site to meet demand. "Compared with system issues from past holidays, this doesn't raise a lot of red flags for us."

Customers aren't so optimistic. Leland Harden received an e-mail from a friend in New York yesterday with a link to a Hallmark e-card. When he clicked on the link, all he saw was the apology notice posted on the Hallmark homepage. Harden tried again several times Thursday and Friday, but still hasn't been able to view the card.

"Frankly, I have been in the Internet industry since '94, and this is just one more example (of) how some of the larger companies still just don't get it...a company as big as Hallmark can't figure out that the world doesn't revolve around them," said Harden, the author of several books about the Internet. "It's just a total failure on their part (in terms of) what it takes to compete in this day and age."

Mishek said people trying to access e-cards should be able to view them because they are routed through a different URL than the Hallmark.com homepage, which is experiencing the heaviest traffic.

Hallmark isn't doing anything to fix the problem, said Mishek, because the company is more concerned with serving customers who are there purchasing items than those seeking freebies. She said those being turned away were most likely seeking the free e-cards because shipping deadlines for other merchandise offered on its site have expired.

"If they're coming in to get the free e-card, they're going to have to wait a little bit," said Mishek. "If they're there to shop, there are other options for them. Our business is focused on generating revenue."

But failing to fix a problem that aggravates customers like Harden could hurt Hallmark's reputation, which can affect revenues. Harden said he will probably not use Hallmark.com again.

"It does leave a bad taste in people's mouths," said Betty Yeh, an analyst with Nielsen/NetRatings.

Hallmark's glitch comes amid reports that online shopping has been relatively free of the big site crashes and other performance problems of past holiday seasons. Keynote Systems, which tracks and rates the performance of many popular Web sites, hasn't seen a single performance problem related to holiday traffic this year, said Della Lowe, a spokeswoman for the company.