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Was Finish Line’s New Site Disaster The Latest Cloud Casualty?

January 9th, 2013

And the most likely culprit is the cloud architecture, because Finish Line in November bragged about how the new site stitched together CRM, inventory and other databases with customer shopping carts. That means a lot of round trips between Demandware’s cloud, Finish Line’s datacenter and customers’ browsers. It may be possible to tune a site that ambitious to overcome all that inevitable network latency, but it sounds like Finish Line’s site didn’t manage to achieve it.

Samuel Sato, Finish Line’s president, said the site’s launch timing was potentially the biggest problem from the chain’s point of view. “Two critical pieces: One is the timing of our launch prior to holiday. In hindsight, this was a mistake, given the importance of the holiday season. Secondarily, we had consumer experience issues that were primarily driven by the site design and functionality. And, in fact, traffic on our new site did not change from its previous legacy site. In fact, it grew a tad. It was really about conversion that led us to make the strategic decision to move back to our legacy site and to ensure that we could preserve our important holiday selling season.”

CFO Edward Wilhelm added that shoppers were happy again as soon as the old site was restored. “Once we reverted it back, we got back to the same metrics that we were seeing on our old site previously, so there was no lingering effect,” he said.

CEO Lyon took much of the blame, saying overconfidence and insufficient supervision appears to have been behind the problem.

“In hindsight, launching the Web site in November was a huge mistake. Now you get into the whole leadership and management scenario that says, ‘Did confidence outweigh reality of doing something like that at that time of the year?’ We had so much confidence built into the fact that this platform was going to improve our business, never thinking that it could be decreasing our business,” he said.

Once management realized the problem, it didn’t immediately go to the old site. Instead, the chain worked on the new system for 10 critical holiday shopping days before reverting.

“We spent 10 days to make sure that we couldn’t fix it and have it perform at a level that was acceptable at holiday time and then go forward with it, adjusting it on a go-forward basis,” Lyon said. “I constantly use the expression around here that we need to be confident, but we can’t be cocky. And the fact is, we might have got a little out on our skis here. And we’re admitting that to you, and we’re taking all of the proper actions to fix that.”


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10 Comments | Read Was Finish Line’s New Site Disaster The Latest Cloud Casualty?

  1. Sarah Park Says:

    With what happened last holiday and with so many people greatly affected, I guess they will have a hard time building the credibility and gaining people’s trust again.

  2. Ed Says:

    Is this really Demandware’s fault or the Finish Line CIO/CEO’s fault? Why would anybody release new technology prior to their biggest activity season? The Finish Line made a risky bet and they lost. Retailers should stop the risky “just in time for the holiday season” mantra when implementing technology solutions. I’ve seen this over and over in Retail IT sector and they seem to end up with more eggs on their face than success stories lately.

  3. M Says:

    Avid Finish Line (Online Shopper) & let me say first hand experience that site was absolutely horrendous…every link failed and timed out it was hellacious…The old site is just fine no need to change it.

  4. Jaimie Sirovich Says:

    Wow, the Demandware story is interesting. You rarely get to compare things apples-to-apples like this.

    Demandware is OK, but their base functionality in terms of information retrieval quality is mediocre in my opinion. Their spell check is 2-step. I’m not impressed with their overall keyword-search quality, either. SEO — I won’t even get started. That and I’m not sure why they’d do this when Demandware typically takes a percentage of your sales.

    It’s hard to know what they mean by “performance.” I think they kept it vague on purpose.

    I’m frankly not surprised they switched back. I’m not sure which eCommerce platform it is (could be custom and I haven’t investigated deeply), but they look to be using Endeca for their search and navigation. My analysis is simple. This was a foolish move, and the fool that decided to switch from what they had to Demandware should be fired (or hire me to evaluate his next questionable decision). Even if I’m wrong about all of the above, they then had no control over their application, as their entire application is SaaS!

    Strike 2. No control over your destiny. SaaS has a habit of causing that problem. For a large B&M like FinishLine, this is an unacceptable decision. Demandware has crocs.com in its portfolio, I see — which is no doubt a bullet point that Demandware used to seal the deal, but Crocs isn’t FinishLine. Crocs is a manufacturer that dabbles in selling online. Finishline is a retailer with serious merchandising needs.

    Walmart switched away from Endeca, for example, but it wasn’t for any other reason (in my opinion) than to have even more control over their destiny. So they also obviously didn’t move to a SaaS platform.

    They moved to an even more custom platform where they can write their own algorithms based on technology they acquired from a company founded by the same engineers that built Amazon’s A9 search platform. In other words, Walmart has the capital to invest in a completely custom merchandising/search/nav platform and probably didn’t like that their other customers had the same access to the same technology as they do if they made the same purchases. I don’t think they were _unhappy_, they just wanted more control.

    Finishline isn’t Walmart. They were doing fine with their previous decisions and in my opinion this was a step backwards in terms of control and quality. Kudos to them for at least admitting they made the mistake and taking the fix to the finish line . . .

  5. Karl Farbman Says:

    “And the most likely culprit is the cloud architecture, because Finish Line in November bragged about how the new site stitched together CRM, inventory and other databases with customer shopping carts. That means a lot of round trips between Demandware’s cloud, Finish Line’s datacenter and customers’ browsers. It may be possible to tune a site that ambitious to overcome all that inevitable network latency, but it sounds like Finish Line’s site didn’t manage to achieve it.”

    How can you possibly say “the most likely culprit”? The FL President himself said:

    “It was really about conversion that led us to make the strategic decision to move back to our legacy site and to ensure that we could preserve our important holiday selling season.”

    Conversion rate is driven by so many factors that it’s impossible for an outsider to comment on what the problems were. Finish Line did a complete site redesign at the same time they launched a new eCommerce platform. If their design firm did a poor job with the usability of the site, that could cause conversion rate to plummet, regardless of what platform you’re moving to.

    Calling this the problem of the SaaS infrastructure without any details of the problems doesn’t make sense.

  6. Frank Hayes Says:

    When you have a conventional E-Commerce site that’s working fine, then replace it with a cloud-based site and conversion rates drop, you don’t just blame site design. The site’s new design didn’t drive traffic away — traffic went up slightly. It was just conversions that dropped.

    And in fact Samuel Sato, Finish Line’s brand president, said (in a quote we didn’t use, responding to a Credit Suisse analyst’s question about whether the conversion problem was from the front-end creative or the systems part): “So yes, it was both. We believe that conversion, customer experience and conversion being the metric is largely impacted by both site design as well as functionality of the back end.”

    The fact that Finish Line didn’t make the decision to simply fix the creative, but instead is taking a total of four months to assess whether the new site can be workable, suggests this isn’t just the front end, but a more intractable technical problem. As least, that’s what it suggested to us. Your analysis may vary.

  7. Michael Hines Says:

    No, this isn’t a “Cloud Casualty.” This is clearly just another example of a rushed launch. If you are re-platforming your entire e-commerce business, you should launch at least two months before the holiday season. Some pre-launch performance testing would help. It’s that simple. Anyone with any decent experience at all with e-commerce platforms who doesn’t have something to sell, knows I’m right. We’ve all been there.

  8. Rich Says:

    After working in ecommerce for over 15 years I would bet there are several factors for this failure.

    But this is usually the most common -

    Performance usually takes a back seat to features and customizations. No one will step up and say to a retailer… you probably don’t want to implement this feature because the very nature of it will kill your performance and possibly the site itself. Its a game of Quantity and not Quality. Do not implement anything until you have confidence it can perform well.

    Also, there are no perfect ‘platforms’. I’ll bet the Finish Line also has issues with their legacy system too, its just that over years of use… they are used to its shortcomings.

  9. Frank Steiner Says:

    It is always better not to make major changes before and during the holiday season. Launching a new technology or feature during this period is very risky and should be avoided at all costs.

  10. Observer Says:

    The fault seems to lie with both of them.

    Finish Line for requesting to rush a platform and website redesign launched the week of Black Friday & Cyber Monday. (I mean, how stupid do you have to be? They must be the laughing stock of the retail community. You don’t make major IT changes in Q4 period, let alone Thanksgiving week.)

    And Demandware for agreeing to go along with it. Foolish. Maybe greedy. Sometimes you’ve got to say no to a customer.

    As for the conversion issues? Of course conversion is going to go down when the website is redesigned (website design is not done by Demandware) and consumers are unfamiliar with it, don’t know where things are, need to learn to navigate it, etc.

    And performance kinks on Demandware’s platform side? Probably. But those get worked out over time (except when you’re launching and freaking out on Cyber Monday). I don’t hear Demandware’s hundreds of other customers having any problems. Hmm…

    Oh, and by the way, Finish Line still paid Demandware for the contract (they took a charge to write it off; it’s public record) which basically admits that Demandware did not fail to perform under the contract.

    But would I expect Finish Line management to try to save face and point fingers? Of course. It’s human nature.

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