December 6, 2006, 12:00 AM

Heavy traffic causes slow down at Overstock.com

Overstock.com experienced a record spike in traffic between noon and 2 p.m. Eastern Time Tuesday as online shoppers rushed to purchase "Pirates of the Caribbean" DVDs.

Intermittent web performance problems continue to plague a number of the web’s biggest retailers this holiday season.

This time the performance headache came for Overstock.com, which experienced a record spike in traffic between noon and 2 p.m. Eastern Time as online shoppers rushed to purchase "Pirates of the Caribbean" DVDs.

The record number of visitors caused intermittent performance problems for Overstock.com, No. 18 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites. Many visitors were unable to access the site, which, in turn, prompted Overstock.com to turn off the inventory feed for the DVD and post a "sold out" message.

Overstock.com announced Monday that "Pirates of the Caribbean" DVD would go on sale at noon Tuesday for $9.99 for the first day of its "12 Days of Christmas" promotional campaign. "Consumer response to the promotion was beyond anything we imagined and we had a big imagination,” says Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com.

Along with Amazon.com and Walmart.com, Overstock.com is the latest major online retailer to incur a web performance problem in the wake of record holiday shopping. Though there was no outage at Amazon, performance did slow temporarily in connection with the promoted sale of the XBOX 360 on Thanksgiving. Walmart.com experienced severe slowdowns beginning at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Time on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The site eventually became unavailable to a majority of users, with normal performance finally restored at 2:30 p.m., according to Keynote Systems Inc., a web performance monitoring company. Macys.com also experienced significant slowdowns starting at 5 a.m. Eastern Time on the Friday of the long Thanksgiving holiday, with normal performance restored at 2 p.m.

Overall this online holiday shopping season is drawing record traffic. The Monday after Thanksgiving marked the highest online retail traffic volume so far this year in the Nielsen/NetRatings Holiday eShopping Index with a unique audience total of 29.5 million, including 16.1 million visitors from home and 13.4 million from work. Nielsen/NetRatings` Holiday eShopping Index comprises more than 120 online retailers across 12 product categories.

Total traffic on the Monday after Thanksgiving to the index rose 6% to 29.5 million from 27.7 million a year ago, Nielsen says. Traffic from home rose 5.5% to 13.4 million from 12.7 million, as traffic from work rose 7.3% to 16.1 million from 15 million.

But record site traffic is also bringing into question whether or not the biggest online retailers are capable of handling the volume despite their significant combined spending on computer hardware, software and web performance tools and services. “Nobody anticipated the volume that web retailers are experiencing this year,” says Matt Poepsel, vice president and general manager of Gomez Inc. “We are seeing unprecedented demand and many retailers are seeing what’s happening and already vowing to do better next year.”

Most large web retailers normally do sophisticated web performance testing and benchmarking before the start of the holidays to troubleshoot traffic-related problems. But testing is only a predictive measure and many retailers probably didn’t anticipate all the volume they are seeing this Christmas shopping season. “The demand is mind boggling,” says Poepsel. “Retailers test as much as they can, but it’s still an imperfect science."

 

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