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Target’s Too-Clever Site Fails (Or Does It?): Inside Missoni Tuesday

Written by Frank Hayes
September 15th, 2011

Target’s E-Commerce inventiveness is coming back to bite it. When the chain’s three-week-old Web site crashed early Tuesday morning (Sept. 13) in the face of a ravening hoard of shoppers looking for Missoni products, the site truly was down. By noon Eastern time, the site was back up—but many would-be customers continued to think the site was offline throughout the rest of the day. Those who did reach the site to shop reported issues at checkout time that might (or might not) have been true IT glitches. The problem: Even when Target.com works, it doesn’t work the way customers expect. And, as a practical matter, that can be as bad as the site simply not working.

That compounded the problems of “Missoni Tuesday,” which a Target spokesman said saw “greater item demand than we do on a typical Black Friday.” But the crush of customers, and the fact that so many items sold out, masked a serious issue: Even though Target.com made buckets of money that day, the result left a bad taste in the mouths of many Target customers—and the site’s nonconformist challenges are still there.

What did happen on Tuesday? Target will only confirm that the site was down for about three hours in the morning and then “inaccessible at times.” That inaccessibility to customers may have been due to Target.com’s unusual design, which appears to allow only a limited number of customer sessions on the site at once.

According to several Web monitoring services, the site ground almost to a halt just before 8:00 AM (New York time). If customers were patient enough (the error page took more than two minutes to load, according to Pingdom), they saw a picture of Target’s mascot dog Bullseye in a repairman’s suit, with the words “Oh no, something went wrong when we tried to (load this page/process your request). Please try again. If the problem persists, please feel free to contact Target help.”

Nothing unusual about that—except, instead of also sending a typical HTTP error code such as 500 (internal server error) or 503 (service temporarily unavailable), the page reported code 200: everything OK.

By about 8:30 AM, the “Oh no” page was replaced by a different error page—same dog, but this time the message said: “Hello, we are hard at work making the site better. Sorry for the inconvenience—we’ll be back up and running shortly.”

At 11:15 AM (according to AlertBot), that page was replaced by yet another—still the same dog—with the message: “Woof! We are suddenly extremely popular. You may not be able to access our site momentarily due to unusually high traffic. Please stay here and we’ll try to get you in as soon as we can! We’re up and running here.” AlertBot—and many potential Target.com customers—concluded that the site was still down.

But it wasn’t. That was Target’s innovative idea for preserving site performance. Once the number of customers in the online store reached a predefined limit, new customers just had to wait for someone else to leave. As a later version of the “Woof” page put it, “You will be automatically moved into the site when a spot is available. Please do not refresh this page or else you will lose your place in line.” Still later versions explained that the site would automatically retry the homepage every 30 seconds.

In short, the site was working exactly as it was designed to. The “Woof” page lets customers in only as space is available; the fact that each session times out after 30 minutes, as we noted when we first looked at the new site, makes room by clearing out inactive customer sessions. (On a normal day, the pop-up message that indicates the timeout appears to have no effect. On Tuesday, it kicked inattentive customers back to the “Woof” page.)

Unfortunately for Target, that carefully managed queue is not what customers expect.


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