E-Commerce Crashes Join Death and Taxes

I’ve heard it from all sides. E-tail customers have told me it’s nohardship — indeed, no big deal — when their favorite site goes down.

I’ve heard it from the businesses themselves — what else would theysay — that the outage was only temporary, that there would be no impact on financial results, that they’re working hard to prevent future occurrences. These people seem to think that the media makes more out of these outages thanneed be.

In fact, one techie-centric message board posted the early news thatMicrosoft’s servers were down for many users on Wednesday under the category of “no big deal.”

But it is a big deal. Or at least it will be soon. A very big deal.

Knock, Knock

Imagine the real-world equivalent. You show up at a store and it’s dark, thedoors locked. No explanation, just a dark store. Or you call any company forthat matter, right in the middle of the work day, and get no answer.

How many times could that happen before the business collapses?Not many times, is my guess. For now, unfortunately, Web sites are on a honeymoon.

Now imagine that company is not just a fly-by-night operation down thestreet, but the No. 1 producer of computer software on the face of theearth. Or the No. 1 online retailer, the big daddy of the industry. Toargue that crashes of these giant sites don’t rattle consumer confidence is to stretch credulity pretty darn thin.

Out to Lunch

Yet there’s evidence that consumers brushed off the holiday-season woesof Amazon and others. In short, they simply came back later. They treatedthe technologic hiccups as a symptom of e-commerce growing pains.

Maybe they like the sense that they are on the cutting edge, that theyare pioneers on shaky ground. After all, if e-commerce were truly established, these kinds of things wouldn’t happen, right?

But the fact is that consumer resilience says a lot more about what levelof customer service we’ve all come to expect in the third millennium than itdoes about whether shoppers really want to visit a site that is up and running 24/7/365.

Bar None

Inconvenience, unfortunately, has become an accepted part of the retailequation, both online and off. The performance bar is set so low that it has been an advantage for e-tailers.

All they had to do was make the most modest effort to be open for business,to not expose credit card data to hackers and to deliver products — at leastsome of them — on time and to the right place and in one piece. Meeting those conditions, they made new friends and fans for life.

But the bar is going up. The apparent economic slowdown that FederalReserve Chairman Alan Greenspan all but just made official willsee to that. People will demand more for their money — and fast.

Asking for Trouble

E-commerce maturation will also raise the performance bar. People’sexpectations go up every year. Yes, shoppers were smarter during holidays2000 and planned for the exact type of problems they encountered in 1999 by completing their shopping and placing their orders early to avoid shipping problems.

But how many years will they carry the burden? At some point, they’re going to expect e-tailers to do the hard work, to make the deliveries on time and toget it right the first time.

This standard, I’m afraid, is going to require that e-commerce businesses stay openfor business all the time. Now a routine maintenance outage from 4 to 5 a.m. once every couple months is one thing. But day-long problems like those ateBay and Microsoft or even hours-long interruptions like Amazon suffered arenot going to pass the sniff test for long.

Emergency Planning

I understand the technical side of things. Sure, there’s no way to preparefor every contingency. Of course, attacks are always one step ahead of the latest defenses. But understanding the inevitability of crashes and accepting them are two different things.

No big deal? Think again. The level of expectations goes up every day.Those who fail to stay above it do so at their own peril.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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