Web sites falter as holiday season opens

* First big wave of holiday shoppers taxes many retailer's sites

The big test of retailers' Web sites occurred in the days following Thanksgiving, and a number of top retailers at times couldn't keep up with the heavy loads, according to Web monitoring firms.

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In particular, a number of retailers struggled with availability issues on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Costco averaged roughly 64% availability between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. (ET) on Friday before significantly improving performance on Saturday, when it delivered more than 91% availability, reports Gomez, which tracks the Top 25 online retailers’ site performance. Sears similarly suffered availability problems, averaging just over 61% availability for Friday. Sears also turned things around on Saturday, when it delivered 100% performance, Gomez says.

HP Shopping and Overstock.com suffered from sluggish response times on Friday -- nearly 45 seconds on average for HP Shopping and 17 seconds for Overstock. But both returned to normal levels (13 seconds for HP Shopping and 5 to 6 seconds for Overstock) on Saturday.

On Dec. 1, “Cyber Monday,” the Web sites of Dell, Victoria’s Secret and Williams-Sonoma experienced issues during the morning hours, according to Gomez.

Victoria’s Secret shoppers trying to place items in a shopping cart received a site unavailable page and were unable to proceed during the morning of Dec. 1, Gomez reports. Meanwhile, at Williams-Sonoma’s shopping cart/view payment pages, a typical transaction slowed from 26 seconds at 6 a.m. to almost 50 seconds between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. At Dell’s site, returning shoppers were briefly (between 9:40 a.m. and 10:15 a.m.) unable to retrieve pre-populated account information, meaning they had to start-over filling out forms when checking out, Gomez reports.

Despite the site hiccups, online retailers managed strong sales in the days following Thanksgiving.

Black Friday saw $534 million in online spending, up 1% over last year, according to Web measurement firm comScore. For the Saturday and Sunday following Thanksgiving, online sales came in at $769, a strong 19% gain relative to last year. For Cyber Monday, comScore says online sales hit $846 million, a gain of 15%. Overall, the four-day period from Black Friday through Cyber Monday saw e-commerce spending jump 13%.

In addition, shoppers report being more satisfied with online retailers than they had been leading up to the holiday weekend.

In a survey of more than 250,000 people who shopped online between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a new study from ForeSee Results found online customer satisfaction was higher on Cyber Monday than it was at any point in November. Usually the opposite is true: Satisfaction levels typically fall on Cyber Monday as online shoppers fail to find the deep discounts and free shipping offers they expect, ForeSee says.

“It seems that for the first time, retailers have finally met customer expectations for sales and promotions with all of the well-publicized deals that were available Monday,” said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, in a statement.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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