Post Black Monday, Many E-Tail Sites Still Struggle With Uptime

Written by Fred J. Aun
December 10th, 2008

As the hoopla surrounding Black Friday and Cyber Monday mercifully subsided, some e-tailers were still struggling to keep their sites up, with Office Depot and Sephora suffering repeated outages while Walmart and Office Max—among others—experienced more sporadic mishaps.

The problem with analyzing e-tail traffic—and especially e-tail uptime incidents—is that we have such a narrow view into the environment. Even the top Web tracking services combined only look at a very small number of key sites. That allows us to extrapolate roughly how things are going, but just because most of those sites are calm doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of e-tail is calm. It’s sort of like trying to project a U.S. national election by looking at exit polls from three major states. It’s interesting, but far from a complete picture.

That said, it’s what we have. Most of the documented slowdowns cropped up on the weekend. first became unavailable at about 3 AM New York time on Saturday. The site was down for about 45 minutes, according to Keynote. But that crash was minor compared to another that began at 5:40 AM and lasted for more than 3 hours. again went offline from about 9:30 AM to 9:53 AM on Sunday, Keynote said.

At least some visitors to the Wal-Mart site during those periods were greeted with this roadblock to holiday shopping: between the times listed below, Wal-Mart posted the following message on their homepage, "We’re Sorry! Our site is temporarily unavailable. We will be back shortly and appreciate your patience. In the meantime, if you need any assistance, please contact us," Keynote reported.

Office Max’s site went down for about a half-hour on Dec. 5, a situation site monitoring company Pingdom suggested might have been a planned pulling of the plug for site maintenance. Even if it wasn’t done on purpose, the outage was a lot less disruptive than the outage that subsequently plagued the site of its competitor Office Depot. was down 58 minutes starting at 5:09 AM New York time on Saturday the 6th, reported Pingdom. "This was quite possibly a real outage considering the website responded with HTTP Error 500 (internal server) most of the time," said Pingdom analyst Peter Alguacil. "Also, their Website gave this text: ‘We’re Sorry. We are unable to process this request.’"

Whatever is happening at might still be happening. The site experienced another 20-minute outage on Wednesday (Dec. 10).

And then there’s the Web site of beauty care product company Sephora. "The biggest issue during the last couple of days" was Sephora, Alguacil said on Monday (Dec. 8). He said "racked up six hours of downtime" over the course of the weekend.

The company was unwilling to provide details and only offered this rather superficial acknowledgement: " experienced difficulties due to unprecedented traffic levels. Sephora is working hard to ensure similar problems in the future are avoided."

The problems began 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (Dec. 6) with an outage that lasted more than three hours. "Technically, it was severe slowdown," said Alguacil, adding that it took significantly more than a minute to download the homepage, "which, for all practical purposes, is downtime. We draw the limit at 30 seconds and even that is quite generous."

He said two additional outages of at least an hour each followed as well as some crashes of shorter duration. "During this time, when we were able to load the page, it often took 20-plus seconds to do so," Alguacil said. "The site became more stable before 1 AM on the 7th when the site went back to normal speed."


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