On-time delivery: E-tailers under the gun this holiday season
Scott Silverman, VP, Internet retailing, National Retail Federation
One reason for BestBuy's troubles was the rumor that it would begin selling the much-hyped and hard-to-find PlayStation 2 video game player, according to spokeswoman Laurie Bauer. Customers were also trying to get information about a special promotion the Minneapolis, Minn.-based company had advertised.
"Those two things gave us much more traffic than we expected," Bauer said. "We've had intermittent (outages)?and the site was very slow."
About 1.3 million people logged onto Amazon on Friday, according to traffic tracking site Nielsen/NetRatings. But spokesman Bill Curry said the glitch was unrelated.
"It was an internal bug that we caught and squashed," he said, adding that after the glitch was corrected, Amazon's site suffered no performance problems.
So far, most e-commerce sites have stood up well to holiday traffic, research firm Keynote Systems said. BestBuy.com only launched its site this summer, and this is their first taste of the holiday shopping crunch.
But holiday outages have become commonplace enough and appear to indicate that even with loads of preparation and experience, online stores are still vulnerable to spikes in traffic.
"This time period is especially critical for all these Web sites," said Daniel Todd, chief technologist of public services for Keynote. "This is how they define their success."
Last Monday, Walmart.com's Web site slowed to a crawl, and for about an hour, it took an average of 260 seconds to download, according to Keynote. Visitors can normally download the page in about 3 seconds to 4 seconds, Todd said.
Last week, home grocer Webvan ran out of holiday goodies days before Thanksgiving.
Sites have also gone black as a result of shoppers flocking to online stores during sales or promotions.
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Outages or slow Web sites can exact a high price. Delays in service can frustrate shoppers, which means people may go elsewhere to buy.
"It's the nature of tech: Things break," Todd said.
Broken-down Web sites have practically become an online holiday tradition. Shoppers pouring into Web sites have in the past crippled such online stores as Toysrus.com, Dell Computer, eBay and Virgin Megastore.
Amazon's Curry said that too much is made of the outages. They happen infrequently and usually are fixed quickly.
"It's a reality of most businesses that glitches sometimes occur," Curry said. "These problems are aberrations, and whether it's a late airplane flight, or a computer freezing up, they occur. These are very large, complex systems. Over time, we keep getting better at preventing glitches, but inevitably interruptions can occur."
The challenges for retailers aren't just technical. Earlier this month, a group of Amazon workers announced that they are trying to unionize. Seeking better pay and job security, the workers in the company's Seattle headquarters are attempting to organize their customer service center employees and affiliations with the Communications Workers of America.
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos said recently that there was no need for unions at the company and that union efforts would not disrupt the company's holiday season.
"There are not going to be any interruptions this Christmas," Bezos said.