To Launch Or To Wait: That Is The Question

Retailers are pondering the most important question of the year: Is it better to open a Web site that is almost functional, or forgo possible huge holiday sales and wait until the site is fully functional and bug-free?

With Thanksgiving looming, even retail giants are grappling with this dilemma. In the next few weeks, names like Tiffany, Old Navy, Pottery Barn and Limited will make every effort to beat the holiday clock and get online.

Still, when the dust settles, some may find the risks of too many bugs in the system far too great.

“A lot of this comes down to simply believing that building a site is an easy thing to do,” said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research. McQuivey said that part of the $10 million (US$) cost of building a first-rate site is hiring people like developers, and with the great race to get up and running online, first-rate developers come at a premium — if they’re available at all.

“Some companies have been looking for vice presidents of e-commerce all year. They have to build the site, handle fulfillment, customer service call centers, and on it goes,” McQuivey added.

As to where new e-tailers are most vulnerable online, Jupiter Communications released a study last week that said call centers and fulfillment services are the weakest spots. Only 10 percent of sites surveyed said that they would be capable of dealing with an overnight surge of twice the amount of normal traffic, especially in the areas of Web response rates, levels of service and shipping services.

Opting To Wait

Although the huge holiday dollars are hard to resist, some companies are opting to wait until all the bells and whistles are perfect. Limited is one such company.

As far back as 1997, the company began planning sites for its Limited, Limited Express and Victoria’s Secret stores. Currently, only Victoria’s Secret is online, because the company decided that the risks were too high in trying to move online too fast.

Jon Ricker, chief information officer for Limited, said that for a large retailer like his company, there is a lot more to consider in putting the model together.

Company executives learned last January that the Net can provide challenges that are difficult to overcome.

The company ran an ad during the Super Bowl, promoting a Webcast fashion show that was to take place the following Wednesday. The campaign was successful, as the site registered a million hits.

However, the high volume overwhelmed the site, and many people were ultimately unable to view the Webcast.

The High Cost Of A Reputation

Retail giant Wal-Mart chose to push back the unveiling of their redesigned site to January 1, 2000 and instead has focused upon testing their redesigned site for bugs and functionality.

“This is a journey for us, not a race,” said Glen Habern, senior vice-president of new business development at Wal-Mart. The Arkansas-based retailer intends to use a random selection of customers and thousands of home office associates to join the test of the beta site this month.

“We know that our associates are the best focus group to help prepare us to meet our online customers’ shopping needs before introducing the redesigned shopping store to them,” added Habern.

Ultimately, the cost and challenges of e-commerce have caused at least one major retailer to declare that they are going to take their online store down. Last week, Levi Strauss & Co. announced that following Christmas, consumers will no longer be able to purchase items on Levi’s and Dockers Web sites.

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