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Target's under-stocked sale: Lessons not learned

Evan Schuman | April 24, 2015
In retail -- and especially in e-commerce -- there's a nuanced distinction between having a very popular sale and arranging for far too little merchandise. It's like those hold recordings that say the lengthy hold time is because of high customer call volume, prompting most people to mumble, "That and the fact that you're too cheap to hire enough call center operators."

As someone posted on the Q&A site, using the name Michele Oresky Kusiak: "If you take a look on eBay, there are over 72,000 Lilly Pulitzer for Target items listed. That doesn't say that most people bought it to enjoy it themselves," Kusiak wrote.

Added another commenter, using the name Stephanie Carter Perry: "There are other secondary markets, such as PoshMark where 1,000's of these items are listed. The 1.5 percent is not a true or accurate number because it doesn't include other secondary purchasing sites OR what transactions have already taken place on eBay. Bottom line, Target doesn't care. They got theirs."

Target certainly made an effective use of social media to push this sale. "This is now officially the most talked-about collaboration on social media that we've ever had," Tesija wrote. "When we launched on Sunday, we saw heavy traffic to our website and lines outside of many of our stores across the country. Clearly, Target's guests had this launch marked on their calendars, and the product quite literally flew off of our shelves. By mid-morning, it was essentially sold out."

"The product quite literally flew off of our shelves"? No, it literally didn't, unless the garments sprouted wings.

Target underestimating — and that's the most charitable interpretation — sales is one thing. What about underestimating Web traffic?

There's no dispute that Target's site, during this sale, slowed to a crawl. How did Tesija reply?

"The website never crashed, but due to high traffic, it was slow and our guests had to wait longer than they should have to access the full collection. That's frustrating, both for them and for us," Tesija said. "We're taking a close look at what happened. We're committed to constant improvement, and are laser focused on providing our guests with a great, seamless experience."

When IT looks at a site, it doesn't declare it having crashed until there is zero activity. When I have talked with retailers about site troubles, the answer is invariably something like "Of course our site isn't down. I am seeing thousands of sales being processed." That's a reasonable conclusion, but it doesn't factor in how many shoppers could not get through. Would they have otherwise seen 100 times that number?

To a shopper who can't get through, the information that many others did get through provides little comfort.

Is Target getting the message? Well, this may be a coincidence (and given how long it takes IT at a place as large as Target to react, it quite likely is), but on Tuesday (April 21), Target's mobile site issued a patch. The iTunes description said that it was a "fix to increase stability during high-traffic events. A special thank you for your patience as we addressed this bug!"


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