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

September 15th, 2011

Unfortunately for Target, that carefully managed queue is not what customers expect. There’s no busy signal on the Internet—if a site is too crowded, customers assume the site has slowed down or crashed. When customers see a mascot in a repairman’s suit, they figure the site is broken. They’re unlikely to read small print instructing them to wait patiently. Hitting the refresh button is second nature for most Web shoppers today.

When those customer expectations ran up against Target’s clever idea to improve site performance, the result was what you’d expect: Customers did what customers do, and everyone reported that the site was down all day—even long after the site was running correctly.

Well, mostly anyway. Customers who managed to get onto the site were able to clear the virtual shelves of cut-rate versions of Missoni’s pricey merchandise pretty much the way shoppers were clearing the shelves in Target’s brick-and-mortar stores. Along with problems getting into the online store, some customers complained on Twitter about problems logging in so they could check out and about items disappearing from their shopping carts at checkout time.

Those may have been actual back-end checkout problems—even after turning away large numbers of customers, was still logging big sales on the site. But the problems may also have been oddities we noted about the site three weeks ago. For example, customers who signed up when Amazon ran the site for Target were required to reset their passwords once Target unveiled the new site. Does that explain customers who had problems logging in?

And given’s nonstandard approach to letting customers into the site, could products disappearing from shopping carts be a feature and not a bug? Suppose’s designers decided that items would only be marked out-of-stock after the entire online inventory was actually purchased, rather than after all the available items had been placed in shopping carts.

That way, items in abandoned shopping carts wouldn’t force the inventory system to flag products as out-of-stock, only to appear in-stock again once the shopping carts had timed out. That’s actually a customer-friendly feature.

Except it also means that as a product was actually close to selling out on Tuesday, customers could keep putting that product into their shopping carts—and once the last unit of that product sold, the ones in not-yet-checked-out shopping carts would just evaporate.

Queuing customers at the virtual door, waiting to declare out-of-stocks until the last moment—these are interesting ideas. They’re the type of innovation that retailers keep calling for.

But they’re not what customers expect, and on a day like Missoni Tuesday, Target didn’t look innovative. It looked like the victim of self-inflicted catastrophic failure—failure that’s designed into the site, unless Target can manage to retrain its shoppers to change their habits and expectations that work fine on every other E-Commerce site.

Good luck with that, Bullseye.


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