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11/29/2007
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Delays In Product Searches, Check-Outs Plague Holiday Shopping Sites

While multi-hour Web site meltdowns are now rare, slowdowns in product search, cart loading, and check out still left many shoppers stuck this week.

Most retailers are proving they likely won't succumb to complete Web site meltdowns of several hours or more during the busy holiday shopping days, which wasn't uncommon in years' past.

Yet now they have other problems to tackle. While most shoppers could get into Web sites on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many got stuck during product search, cart loading, and check out processes.

The only known site with a major shutdown was Sears.com, which was inaccessible to many consumers for more than seven hours mid-day last Friday. Sears, which declined an interview request, issued a statement blaming the problem on "a combination of higher than anticipated peak volumes and technical issues."

Between Friday and Monday, Web sites with performance problems included Buy.com, Costco, Eddie Bauer, Lowe's, Sears-owned Kmart, and Toys R Us, according to Websitepulse and Web monitoring firm Keynote Systems. Instances of slow-downs included page downloads for home pages and product searches that might normally take a second or two taking 30 to 60 seconds; significant delays in adding items to carts; and check-out transactions that typically average several seconds dragging into two minutes. No problems were reported at Amazon or Wal-Mart, both of which had significant outage problems in the 2006 holiday season.

"Online retailers have done a good job on optimizing the home page so it moves quickly and customers can browse main sections of the Web site," said Shawn White, director of external operations at Keynote Systems, in an interview. "The critical point is where a customer comes in, knows what they want, and wants to add that to their shopping cart, and searches for a particular item," he said.

These processes require Web sites to tap into data stores on thousands or even millions of products. Images for products on the home page are typically static content, and perhaps even handled by online content service providers such as Akamai. "But when you go through the search experience, that's when you hit a bunch of other back-end systems and databases," White explained. It's at that critical point retailers need to ensure there are no delays caused by firewalls or improper load balancing of databases, for example.

Problems varied by retailer. On Cyber Monday, Buy.com had delays with its "check out" button. "The initial home page was loading fine; the problem was when you went to go check out with your e-mail address and shipping info," White said. Costco had up to a 500% increase (meaning something typically taking 10 seconds might take 50 seconds) in the time it took to log on as a user (signifying a delay in the security-related user authentication process), add items to a cart, and complete a purchase, according to Keynote. Toys R Us saw a 300% increase in time to search products and add items to a cart, and J Crew saw a 400% increase in time for similar transactions.

In the coming busy holiday season, retailers should be focusing on whether they're properly load balancing their back-end systems, White said. He also suggested -- not surprisingly, considering he works for a Web monitoring firm -- that retailers look more to vendors specializing in Web management services. "Some companies try to outsource their entire IT function for online shopping," White said. "I think we'll see more and more of outsourcing of this... That will allow them to focus on retailing so the Web experts in the industry can handle it."

However, Overstock.com, one of the best-performing sites in the past week, according to Web monitoring firm Gomez, yet one of the most heavily hit, said that an increase in internal hires earlier this year of senior Java developers -- and a move away from offshore outsourcing software development -- was the key to its Web site performance improvements.

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