retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Finally. We had reached consensus on the photo for the family holiday card. The fire had dwindled to glowing embers. It was 10:30 on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving and the card company’s 40% off discount and free shipping offer was expiring at midnight.

I hit "place order."




Due to demand, the website for the popular online stationery boutique Tiny Prints stalled, and my tweaked-to-perfection holiday card order was stuck in its cart.

The Tiny Prints slowdown didn’t generate as much buzz as the Best Buy site crash on Black Friday, or the hiccups that hit the HP Store, Staples, Cabela’s, Footlocker and Forever 21 sites over the holiday weekend through Cyber Monday.

But it did provide an excellent example of how a retailer should respond when technology fails. Reach out to your customers and offer a meaningful apology. And extend the discount.

That was not an option for Best Buy, which saw its site go down from 10 a.m. to 11:30 on Black Friday – a crucial day in the electronics retailer’s battle for market share with Amazon and other e-commerce rivals. It said a “concentrated spike in mobile traffic” overwhelmed the site.

Frustrated shoppers found a holiday themed apology online and on Facebook and Twitter, which of course provided a wide-open forum for the disgruntled to complain.

Wrote one: “Well, after a good few hours of setting up what I'm gonna get for my first potentially amazing Black Friday..... you crash. If you intend to be one of the leaders among sales in technology and electronics maybe, just maybe you should know how to run tech.”

Forever 21, a moderately-priced, hip fashion chain, also experienced plenty of frustrated “omg” comments and emojis when its site crashed during a three-hour “50% off flash sale” on Monday.

This tweet is certain to make both teachers and parents cringe: “And now the Forever 21 site is down … even though it was JUST up when I was on it in class.”

Since I am on Forever 21’s email list, I did receive a “Dear Valued Customer” email from a “no-reply” address apologizing for the problem and extending the deals until Tuesday.

But the Tiny Prints response set a new standard: It was timely, personalized (Dear Kate) and from Levi Hamilton, the Tiny Prints customer service manager. The tone was genuine and I did feel the company appreciated my business.

Gretchen Sloan, a spokesperson for the Shutterfly Inc.-owned brand, said it chose to communicate directly with impacted customers via email rather than utilizing social media, and the extension on the discount was well-received by customers.

It worked for me.

I think there are a few takeaways from the holiday shopping season thus far for e-commerce retailers, marketers and service providers:

• Have a worst-case scenario plan which allows you to reach out to your customers immediately if your site crashes or stalls. If yours is a 24-hour online operation, have someone on deck at 10:30 Sunday night.

• If you choose to utilize social media, be prepared for immediate backlash and a have a measured response ready to go.

• Acknowledge that the stunning increase in mobile shopping is a game-changer, and if you want to be in the major leagues, you’d better have an app for that.

• And finally, if you think you have the whole Black Friday and Cyber Monday thing figured out, think again. Scores of retail analysts and tech-types are doing that right now, and by this time next year there will be another new technological development at play.

And while awaiting my printed card order, I’d like to use this online platform to wish everyone in the MNB community and their families all the best for the holiday season, and health and happiness in the new year.

Comments? As always, send them to me at .
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