By and  on December 16, 2008

E-commerce site outages used to be common during the holiday season but have become more rare as retailers learn how to plan for heavy online traffic. Nonetheless, a string of sites this season have seen glitches that have slowed purchases, while several have been forced to shut down completely.

Sites such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and eLuxury have had slowdowns but very little downtime as shoppers have rushed to take advantage of ongoing sales since Cyber Monday, which is the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Shoppers reported having problems completing purchases at Saks, Barneys and eLuxury after the sites sent out e-mails promising as much as 70 percent off last week.

According to news reports, Victoria’s Secret, Sears, Staples and Costco had difficulties over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“We planned for triple our heaviest traffic from the last holiday period,” said Barneys vice president of e-commerce Larry Promisel. The company has had no more than five to 15 minutes of downtime in November and December, according to its monitoring services, he said. Like other retailers, Barneys staggers e-mail deliveries announcing sales and free shipping so it is not deluged with customers all at once.

On Cyber Monday, which fell on the first of the month this year, J. Crew was down for at least six hours and Bloomingdale’s was also out. J. Crew was back up Tuesday, but has had ongoing problems since, including some downtime Monday afternoon. In a recent earnings call, J. Crew said switching its e-commerce software to Escalate’s Blue Martini over the summer had been troublesome. Bloomingdale’s also uses Blue Martini software.

To avoid site outages, retailers can add hardware in the form of servers to handle increased traffic, which is expensive, or they can lease network capacity from a company such as IBM or Akamai. Providers of hosted e-commerce solutions such as Demandware or GSI Commerce can also plan ahead to offer their clients increased network capacity as needed. Monitoring services and tools such as Keynote Systems and Gomez let the retailer know if there’s a problem.

“If your site’s down, that’s revenue loss,” said Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru. “You can sometimes make up some in the next day or so because some consumers will try to come back and purchase.”

J. Crew, Bloomingdale’s and Escalate declined to comment.

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