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eRescue smoothes way for holiday Net sales

Ernst & Young launches eRescue to bail out ailing Web companies during site failures or operational problems--a hot button for Net retailers this holiday season.

When your Web site gets clogged, call eRescue--the Roto-Rooter of the Internet.

At least that's what Ernst & Young hopes will occur. Last week, the consulting firm launched eRescue to bail out ailing Web companies during site failures or operational problems--a hot button for Net retailers this holiday season.

In recent months, some of the leading e-tailers have suffered major slowdowns or outages, including Toys "R" Us, Virgin Megastore Online and Beyond.com. Even CyberSource, which processes payments for e-commerce outfits, went down earlier this month, forcing many angry Web merchants to close shop for the day.

Site difficulties are a particular concern for Web companies this holiday season, with analysts predicting a record year for Internet retail.

eRescue is designed to handle all major issues--from Web site architecture and order fulfillment to warehouse management and call-support centers--according to company executives. But Ernst & Young also is promoting the service as a "short-term fix" to get e-tailers through the holiday shopping crush.

"eRescue hinges on the recognition that longer-term solutions will just have to wait until January, February or March," said Stan Brown, Ernst & Young's national director of e-tail consulting.

Other e-commerce consulting firms--including IBM Global Services, Andersen Consulting and EDS--say they don't subscribe to the SWAT team mentality. They said they work on an ongoing basis with clients to make sure systems remain stable.

"We provide companies with an environment that will perform through the peak season," said Ed Kilroy, general manager of IBM's e-commerce division. "As far as offering a service that tries to do something days before [the holiday season], I don't think any of IBM's clients would view that as satisfactory support."

The problem facing e-tailers goes beyond their sites crashing. Many customers complain that they must wait inordinately long to receive the goods--pointing to distribution, inventory and warehouse management problems.

"The outages suffered over the past few years have taught e-commerce players that reliability and availability are absolutely critical," said Ernst & Young's Brown, adding that any downtime, delays or mishandled orders will affect not only a company's bottom line but also its brand.

"If you erode the confidence of a customer, remember [that in online retail] your worst rival is only two seconds away."

Brown said this holiday season, many merchants' systems must be prepared to handle double the number of visitors compared with last year.

"Last year many merchants were on a trial run," Brown said. "This year many have been doing more marketing and promotions and not paying enough attention to [dealing with the onslaught of visitors and orders]."