November 3, 2011, 12:01 PM

Multiple Target.com crashes provide site performance lessons for e-retailers

Target.com has crashed at least four times since the retail chain’s site redesign.

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Target Corp. still isn’t talking about what brought down its recently redesigned e-commerce site at least four times since its debut in August. But the problems serve as an example for other retailers that switch their e-commerce platforms, according to web site performance monitoring firm AlertBot.

Two years in the making, the new Target.com marked the retail chain’s divorce from Amazon.com Inc.’s e-commerce platform, which Target had used for a decade. AT&T hosts Target’s new site, which also relies on technology from IBM Corp. and Endeca Technologies Inc. When the redesigned site launched, Target said the revamped Target.com would offer shoppers faster checkout, better site search and navigation and more product recommendations, among other features.

But the introduction of the new site has been marred by multiple site outages: the first on Sept. 13, for about 4 hours; again on Oct. 13, for about 6 hours; another one on Oct. 25, for about 2 hours, 45 minutes; and the most recent one on Oct. 27, for 1 hour, 30 minutes. The first crash took place after Target introduced the Missoni for Target apparel line, prompting a surge in traffic that the site apparently was unable to handle. It’s not clear what caused the other three outages.

But the experience of Target since the new site launch provides a warning for other e-retailers. “When switching platforms, you can never account for everything that can go wrong,” says AlertBot sales and marketing manager Justin Noll, who doesn’t know exactly why Target.com has experienced so many problems. “You can go through rounds of testing functionality, as well as load testing the web site, so you know it can handle the traffic, but there are always things that don't come to light until the site is live.”

While it’s no guarantee of what will happen when a site goes live, retailers launching new sites or switching e-commerce platforms should perform load testing, which involves sending simulated traffic to a retail web site while experts measure the performance of the site, he says. This enables online retailers to figure out how much traffic their sites can handle, at least in a test environment. “Most larger e-commerce sites will do this after making major changes to their network or web site or before the holidays,” Noll says.  “Any time a web site expects a much higher-than-usual amount of traffic, it's important to do load testing.”

Noll says the first Target.com outage appears related to the site not being able to handle large amounts of traffic due to the apparel sale. “This same problem happens every year to a few large e-commerce sites on Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” he says, referring to the day after Thanksgiving and the first Monday after Thanksgiving, both popular days for online shopping.

The other outages appear to have a different cause, he says. “Target didn't have a spike in traffic like they did with the apparel sale. The cause of the other outages is likely to be an issue with their new platform because Target.com didn't have the issue prior to switching,” he says. “It's likely that something was being performed like updates, backups or something else that was making the web site really slow until it crashed or was so slow Target put up an error page. It will be interesting to see if they can work those issues out before they start getting holiday traffic.”
Target is No. 22 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. Amazon is No. 1.

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