How The e-commerce Grinch Stole Christmas – A Holiday Season Marketing Disaster

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Imagine the advertising spend for Boxing Day. Imagine how much money is spent on everything from creative and mechanicals to media and ensuring that your online presence can support the specials and sales. In Canada, Boxing Day is the retail equivalent to the Superbowl. We’re not talking about any given Sunday here – this is their day for the touchdowns.

The brutal experience I had last night with one of the largest retailers in Canada (and they also do some of the biggest hype to build up their Boxing Day extravaganza), would be enough to make Bryan EisenbergGrokDotCom and co-author of Call To Action and Waiting For Your Cat To Bark – throw his hands up in the air and declare the death of e-commerce (for those not in the know, Bryan is widely regarded as the leading expert in online shopping persuasion and conversion).

One of my ongoing resolutions was to not create Customer Service rant type Blog postings here at Six Pixels of Separation. In the interest of staying true to this, I’ve decided to not name the retailer (though I do know senior people who work there, and I will be sending them a link to this Blog posting). Their online Boxing Day sales were set to roll at 8:00 pm on December 24th (last night). Here’s a chronological recap of my experience with my Marketing thoughts at the end.

7:45 pm – I ensure that my customer profile is complete and load up the page with the main product I want.

7:59 pm – I hit the "buy" button and I am switched over to their "your request is being processed" page. The product is saved to my shopping cart.

8:04 pm – Still on the "your request is being processed" page – the server is obviously taking on tons of traffic.

8:10 pm – I get switched to a page called "Boxing Day Check-Out Queue" – there is a status bar indicating how long I will have to wait for payment processing. My bar is at about 5% complete.

8:24 pm – The status bar has not moved. I open up the page in multiple browsers and follow the other steps in hoping one of them will work. They’re all stuck at the same point.

8:27 pm – I call Customer Service.

9:12 pm – I speak to a Customer Service representative (after waiting close to 45 minutes on hold) who tells me that they can’t complete my transaction over the phone because they can’t access the website – it is down. There is "nothing we can do," to quote the rep.

9:15 pm – The website crashes – all of my browser pages become error pages, and when I hit refresh, it is a landing page stating that I will have to come back in a few minutes due to the overwhelming traffic.

10:00 pm – site is still down.

10:15 pm – site reopens, I repeat the initial steps. The product is saved to my shopping cart.

11:10 pm – I am stuck once again on the Boxing Day Check-Out Queue page, but the status bar is moving.

12:00 am – Merry Christmas – I get to 100% on the status bar page and then a error message page… I’ve been booted off again.

12:01 am – The product is now sold out. The seed is planted for this Blog posting.

Main point: my guess is that many people took to e-commerce for their first time because of these sales. Those people are gone – probably never to come back. The experience was a train wreck, and after taking a quick look on places like Technorati, I know I was not alone.

Secondary point: you must be able to provide an optimal experience in an environment like online shopping. Either ensure that you can support the flood of traffic (buy more servers, put more people on customer service who can complete the transaction over the phone, etc…) or place warning text throughout the site that "due to the high volume of traffic you may experience a sub-par online shopping experience" or that "your transaction may not be completed (so don’t get your hopes up)."

Last point: I actually love the brand of this retailer. I don’t anymore. After four hours of watching what I wanted to purchase (twice) get taken from me due to lack of technological infrastructure to support the traffic, and having a human customer service representative tell me that there was nothing they could do to help demonstrated that this retailer cares about pushing the product out the door and not the consumer experience or support.

Marketing point: don’t do it if you can’t fulfill it. In this day and age, if you can’t create a seamless experience, don’t bother. The long term loss of Customers and brand experience is simply not worth it.

I’m not upset that I did not get the product – that’s part of the Boxing Day madness. The retailer will sell the full quantity that they put on special, and make their numbers. The excitement was there. But, moving forward the damage this causes the brand and the Consumers’ desire and appetite to buy online transcends any "moment in time." This is not like waiting in line for five hours and there not being any product left when you finally get into the store. This was more like getting in first, having it in your shopping cart and then the retailer deciding that they don’t want to sell it to you, but they give your products to someone else while you’re waiting in line to pay for it… twice.

That kind of sting takes a long time to heal. If you’re not familiar with buying online, it’s these kinds of experiences that will keep the online retail industry with their current pitiful conversion rates for years to come.


  1. Mitch,
    I appreciate you not trying to be negative on the blog. I am not sure not naming names always is the right choice. The brand you refer to may only think it is your experience and not others because other people may not find the forum to speak out. We have certainly seen it on our site with Ziff David publishers who keep mailing people no matter how many times they have opted out. I think the principle shared in the real world have 12 positive things to say to 1 negative probably would still hold true. I don’t think any of your readers could ever think of you as a negative person; in fact I’d say you are one of the most passionate, and enthusiastic people I know from this industry.
    Back to your experience… The hard part for retailers to understand about all this is the long term cost to their brand. All to often, they are so focused on meeting their short term numbers they forget the impact these awful experiences have on eroding their brand. History is full of retailers who had great sales, lots of buzz, a wonderful brand and today they are out of business. In the past, it would take a lot longer for the word to spread but today it happens as easily as pushing the publish button on one’s blog, updating their FaceBook status, or leaving a review. I personally have my Moby Dick of retailers, I don’t look forward to people loosing their job, but I look forward to seeing this online only retailer close shutter their online doors for all the horrible experiences I have had and heard others have had.
    Happy Holidays!

  2. Good on you for not being negative and not naming names.
    I won`t name names either, because I *might* be a client to one of the retailers you refer to. I can`t talk about my clients, so double-good for the retailer in this situation.
    I got exactly what I wanted- I waited in a queue last night too – but tons more people didn`t. How important is it to these retailers on Boxing Day to have satisfied customers, because for every person like myself, there are bound to be dozens, if not hundreds, who weren`t as lucky on Dec. 24th. and came away very, very unhappy, and the reason they weren`t happy has everything to do with the way things happened. I won`t go into details (you provided plenty of them) but everyone who was ready to check out at 8:01 PM EST basically got screwed, baskets emptied, and forced to re-queue. What a terrible customer experience.
    And I bet you wanted that 99$ HD-DVD player 😉 They sure went fast!

  3. I think the biggest problem this retailer has is that they had a full year to prepare for the “online onslaught”. In fact, reading the buzz around last year’s fiasco, you could see that many consumer’s were willing to cut them some slack as this was one of the first times it had happened this way.
    To follow that up 365 days later with another horrible experience though, with no planning for the infrastructure that would be needed to support the advertising blitz is unacceptable. No one expects every order to be fulfilled at a loss-leader price, but at least have the respect for your clients to have an infrastructure that will show them the “sold out” page. Anything else is unacceptable in 2007.
    It is just too easy to go elsewhere now, and from reading reactions online they’ve used up whatever currency they had with many consumers.
    and no, I wasn’t online to buy anything, just watching the wheels ….

  4. Mitch,
    I too live through the same experience as you did, but working in the industry I do feel for the retailer.
    I also agree 100% that as online retailers it is essential that customer expectations are met especially as many Canadian consumers are just starting to explore the world of online shopping.
    But I can speak from experience that the timed event launch is almost impossible to plan for on a large scale as an international brand, look to the US where multiple retailers had issues during their black Friday events – and don’t believe for one second that people are not planning and testing the site infrastructure for the crush of traffic. I believe that the retailer in mention tried to handle the crush with the queue system but that it didn’t work 100% in the live environment.
    When issues like this happen it is when a company can win or lose a customer for life, it is time for them to rise to the cause of customer service buy handling it in a way that the consumer feels their needs have been met.

  5. Thanks for the may comments here. I really appreciate your contributions.
    I still have to look at the macro situation here: if you can’t deliver on it – don’t do it.
    Bryan talked about the long-term brand risk, Chris talked about the customer disappointment, Bob talked about how it’s not the first time and Simon (who probably has the most in common with the retailer) talked about the near-impossibility of pulling it off.
    So how did the retailer win? They can’t. They didn’t. So now, the long term effects go beyond the branding but into the actual industry. Everyone who does e-commerce lost on this day because of this experience.
    If there’s one thing that’s so hard to get but once you have it, you never want to loose it – it’s trust.
    I’d like to think that they’ve learned their lesson, but by looking at these comments, seeing the follow-up twitter messages and the barrage of emails I got… I doubt it.

  6. I understand the marketing fiasko here but as I am also coming from the technical side I also understand the technical difficulties. There is a reason why startups usually let people in only in chunks. To see how the site behaves and what to do about it.
    Having such peak times is always a very critical act to do as it’s really hard to test.
    But of course you should do your very best to ensure it’s working and after some time now with such problems it should be clear that you better overreact and buy 2 times the servers you wanted to.
    Then if that fails it should also be clear that you have enough people answering the phone and actually some means of accessing the data so that you can finish the order over the phone.
    In the end the customer will not understand the technical difficulties anyway and so trust is lost and so I agree to the main point. So maybe really better don’t do it.

  7. Great point Christian.
    I have one thought on this:
    Consumers don’t care about technology.
    If it’s complex, hard or too slow, the fact that it’s a technological limitation has no bearing. They just want it done and technology can’t be the hurdle. If it is, they will simply revolt.

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