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Target.com Dumps Clever Idea—And Survives Black Friday

Written by Frank Hayes
December 1st, 2011

The biggest E-Commerce surprise of Black Friday was probably what didn’t happen: The problem-plagued Target.com didn’t crash. Despite an absent E-Commerce chief for six weeks before the big day, and what some saw as a half-hearted defense of the site by Target’s CEO on an earnings call, the chain’s online store weathered the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend with just some performance degradation—about the same as other major E-tailers. The most likely reason it survived: Target.com deep-sixed its clever but ill-fated experiment in limiting the number of customers who could be on the site at the same time.

That’s the site feature that led many customers to conclude the site was down even when it wasn’t on Missoni Tuesday in September. It may also have been key to Target’s plan for keeping server and bandwidth costs down—and creating a better customer experience—as the chain took its site back from Amazon.com. Unfortunately, throttling the number of customers didn’t work. It turns out that clever capacity management is no match for a hoard of big-sale-day customers. For that, the only answer really is more servers, more bandwidth and more raw power.

Target wouldn’t comment on its crash-free weekend except to confirm that it happened. (The chain’s new E-Commerce boss, Casey Carl, was named just three days before Black Friday and he isn’t talking either.) However, it’s safe to assume that as part of its fix, Target.com added more servers and bandwidth in advance of the weekend, and also worked more bugs out of its back-end order-management software.

But the most visible change for sharp-eyed customers was how the site behaved during heavy-traffic periods on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday, compared with its behavior during the crash-prone Missoni launch. The three most obvious differences: When the site got busy, there’s now no page that tells customers to wait and they’ll be allowed onto the site as soon as there’s room. There’s also no mysterious notification warning shoppers when they’ve been idle for xx minutes. And the site’s performance is perceptibly slower than normal when all those extra customers arrive.

In short, Target.com now behaves pretty much like any other E-Commerce site under a heavy load. And while that has an obvious and business-critical benefit—the site keeps working now—it also means the end of a very interesting idea.

Most E-tail innovation comes on the customer-facing end, whether that involves videos or QR codes or merged-channel customization. Not much effort has gone into doing things dramatically in the data center (except for pushing some or all of it up into the cloud).

Faced with having to build an E-Commerce site from scratch—one that had to be better than the one Amazon had been running for the chain for a decade—Target made a bet that, when the site got crowded, customers would be willing to wait for a truly pleasant shopping experience. It was the equivalent of concluding that letting just a limited number of customers into a store at a time would make shopping more pleasant than having a whole mob stampede through the doors at once.

That has actually been tried in brick-and-mortar stores, and sometimes it works.


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