Target.com's second site crash could become e-comm nightmare

As holiday season approaches, analysts say now is the time to get online retail in order

For the second time in six weeks, Target's website crashed Tuesday, and that is scary news for any major retailer heading into the holiday shopping season.

Target's site went down for about two and a half hours Tuesday afternoon, a company spokesman confirmed to Computerworld. However, he declined to say what caused the problem.

On Sept. 13, Target's site went down in a well-publicized crash caused by a flood of shoppers going online to scoop up a new line of high-end clothing and home accessories. Soon after the retailer began offering products from the Missoni Italian fashion house, the site began to waver and then crashed under the pressure of so many online shoppers.

Then, on Tuesday, the site suffered another outage, which may have Target's corporate executives anxious and putting pressure on IT to strengthen the site and work out any bugs before the major holiday e-commerce rush commences.

"Target obviously needs to figure out what's causing the problems with their Web presence," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "They need to put the same, or more, effort into maintaining their website as a physical store manager would to ensure his store is operating in an efficient and safe manner. Target needs to redouble these efforts as we get closer to the holiday sales season."

And that, according to Olds, means stress-testing their Web apps and making sure they can handle major traffic spikes. "If these problems persist, they might want to bring in a third party to evaluate what they're doing and show them how to improve," Olds said.

But a crash at an online retail site doesn't have to happen during the holidays to really hurt, said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

"It's scary how much depends on their position in the market," he added. "If approximately the same products are available at another similar [online] retailer, you could lose a customer for life ... And it's only increasingly more critical as we get closer to the big season."

Gottheil noted that Tuesday's downtime shouldn't significantly affect Target's business, but if another outage occurs in November and December, it certainly could.

"Fix it, figure out what went wrong, make sure it never happens again, explain to the world what went wrong and how you will keep it from happening again," he said. "And then hope."

Last week, executives from companies including eBay, Visa and American Express said at the Web 2.0 Summit that online retail is on the cusp of a critical change. Online and offline commerce is converging as consumers use home computers and mobile devices to investigate, compare prices and locate products they want to buy, regardless of whether they buy online or in a brick-and-mortar store.

Olds said a problematic website can hurt this new way of shopping.

"More shoppers are either buying online or checking a store website before heading out to the physical location," he said. "A dicey website can really hurt these days. And having website problems during the critical holiday buying season is a nightmare."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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