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Black Friday Inventory Blowup Hits Target, Buy.com, Fry’s

Written by Evan Schuman and Fred J. Aun
December 2nd, 2010

Several major retailers—including Target, Fry’s Electronics and Buy.com—got burned on Black Friday by a hole in their inventory-checking functionality. The snafu tricked the merchants into selling products to consumers without actually having those products in stock. Among the many Black Friday glitches, this one exposed a flaw that may become increasingly common and might force retailers into a different way of checking inventory.

The problem materialized because this year, for the first time, several E-tailers tried to re-create some of the excitement that surrounds brick-and-mortar Black Friday consumers-wait-at-2 AM-and-then-stampede-for-half-off-an-HDTV sales. The idea was to announce some very enticing deals and then to not offer them until midnight while stressing that only a limited number of each item was available. The retailers’ campaigns were designed to force a huge number of consumers to hit their E-tail sites at the exact same moment and try to buy the exact same product. If you’re looking to stress test your inventory systems, this is an ideal way to do it.

The typical approach to online inventory checking is for the system to look up how many of any item is available after consumers have placed the item in their carts. If the inventory can fulfill the purchase, the consumer is allowed to proceed. But the inventory-availability count isn’t reduced until the order is completed and the customer has paid. That method works 99.9 percent of the time.

In this stress-test situation, though, the inventory count could change dramatically between the time the item is placed in a cart and the time the customer fills out address and payment data and then completes the purchase. The most obvious way to deal with this issue is to set up special rules for these high-volume-in-a-short-time sales situations, perhaps causing the inventory availability figure to be immediately reduced by one the instant the item is placed in a cart. The catch would be that a window would pop up telling the consumer something like, “This is a Red-Hot product. If you do not complete a purchase of it within 10 minutes, it will be removed from your cart and offered to other customers.”

Editor’s Note:

  • Page 1 of this Inventory Glitch Special Report covers The Overview And Impact of this inventory hole.
  • Page 2 covers What happened at Fry’s Electronics.
  • Page 3 covers what happened at Target.
  • Page 4 covers What happened at Buy.com.

    Although this approach may not be ideal, it certainly beats what happened on Black Friday and left large numbers of vocal customers alienated. All three chains sent their customers E-mail messages confirming their purchases and then not alerting those customers for many hours—in some cases, as many as 48 hours—that in fact no purchase was made. In addition, some consumers were charged for their non-existent purchases, although presumably those fees will be credited.


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