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Next held a sale over the weekend, but it seems that its website wasn't properly prepared for the extra traffic, and many customers were asked to queue to enter the website.

I tried to access the Next sale a number of times on Saturday morning, and was asked to wait for up to six minutes on various occasions, while for others it was up to 20 minutes. Not good...

This was the message some customers saw on the site, only two minutes to wait this time:

Next sale queue message

Naturally, being asked to queue to enter a website didn't go down well with some potential customers. Here are a few comments from Twitter, and Retail Week, on the subject:

Just logged onto the Next sale website and was told I was in a queue for 15 minutes just to get on the site!!! I don't think so.

Had an invite to Next's online VIP sale - as in, "get in first!" - Great. I want stuff, but the website has practically crashed. Useless.

I had to queue online for the next sale!! What the hell is going on?? On-line queues!!!

What a joke- the site CRASHED!! The call centre is swamped.  We are sat here trying to spend money in a recession; I am going to take my hard earnt to a deserving retailer. Previous Next sale spend £1453 this time NIL!

Judging by other comments, it seems people were asked to queue for up to 20 minutes to get into the sale website, which is totally unacceptable, and I imagine, as the last comment suggests, Next lost a few sales as a result.

Debenhams experienced similar problems when it launched a sale before Christmas, with the whole website crashing. As a result, a lot of the traffic went to competitors like M&S and John Lewis.

Having run plenty of sales before, Next should have been able to anticipate the extra traffic its website would attract and take steps to cope with the extra demand on its servers. Asking potential customers to queue is not the answer.

Graham Charlton

Published 22 July, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Thierry de Baillon

Too much traffic, for sure, but what if the queue was an experimental strategy to both try to handle this extra traffic and create an "elitist scarcity" effect?

Queuing at luxury brands stores during sales is a common thing, and Next might have tried to reproduce this on its online store, with VIP invites, as one of the comments suggests.

Multi-channel retail ius never an easy task, but I don't think that transfering physical customer experience to the online realm is a viable strategy.

Telling if this move had a positive or negative effect on sales is another aspect, only Next could answer I guess...

about 7 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

I would guess at a negative effect on sales. Queueing may be OK in stores, but is definitely not acceptable online.

about 7 years ago

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Malcolm Slade

From what I recall Next had problems with the site going down last year and put the queueing into operation. They seem to be at the forefront of queueing techniques with the whole "cover the windows in sale posters so nobody can see in and limit the people entering, leaving the rest queueing outside" started in the 90's and now this.

If it's any consolation, it was a living hell at 5 a.m. in the store (or so my wife said, I was in bed).

about 7 years ago

Richard Bundock

Richard Bundock, Managing Director at Cohaesus

There are two high level hypotheses, either a marketing ploy or a technical constraint. My guess looking at the Next site, which is built in Classic ASP, is the latter. So I’ll explore that:

I can imagine the site team were told of the impending sale and flagged that the site may not handle the traffic. I expect a non-Technical manager then asked if they could add a few servers which induced sharp intakes of breath from the site team. They probably explained that due to the monolithic architecture of the existing site it would cost a great deal to be able to support the increased traffic (read: it won’t scale). Then some bright spark had the idea to throttle the load on the servers by placing people in a queue, thus managing the load to the servers.

If they added the queue due to technical constraints and there was no budget to scale the site then I actually think it was the best idea other than not running the sale. The site kept running and at least they made some money. 

As Software Engineers we often find clever marketing types make high demands of the technology currently in situ, with no extra budget to overcome the constraints of the system. Therefore, odd decisions (like this example) get made. It is a classic disconnect between the business and the technology that enables it.

Would they have made more money by being able to scale and handle as many customers as needed? Probably. And would that have paid for the cost of the work to scale the system, maybe. 

In any event having an email entry box on the wait screen, which emailed you when it was your turn, would have been better. 

about 7 years ago

Thomas Frame

Thomas Frame, Managing Director at Etch UK Ltd.Small Business

have to agree with Richard - has Next said anything?, the "big Brand get in the queue" idea would have been clever if not accidental, and might actually have worked with some clever planning.

about 7 years ago

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White Knight

The 'queue' page has been in use for years on the Next site. The sheer volume of traffic generated to the site in a short period of time would be totally uneconomical for ANY business to support. In the same way that they have to control crowds in the physical stores, they control traffic online. Why would you make a decision to run a sale uneconomically?

Easy to run an ecommerce business when you are a journalist and have no concept of making a profit...

about 7 years ago

Richard Bundock

Richard Bundock, Managing Director at Cohaesus

@whiteknight - appreciate your comment that it would be uneconomical with their current architecture. Agreed. 

My response is that it is possible to handle that amount of traffic in an economic way, with a bit of clever thinking and knowledge. Knowing that Next have let this carry on for years is very concerning. That’s a lot of lost business. 

Why has Next decided not to support a programme to improve the scalability of their site? It’s a question only they can answer. 

about 7 years ago

Richard Bundock

Richard Bundock, Managing Director at Cohaesus

As an appendix to my last comment, here is a case study on what you can achieve with some clever thinking and expert software engineering:

http://www.gigaspaces.com/csvirginmobile

about 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

I can't understand any logic online in deliberately making people wait to access your website. 

If you travel a long way to an offline store for a specific event, you are likely to anticipate and cope with a queue. Online, we all expect instant gratification. Next is not a luxury brand and I can't see how anyone would wait around.

If they had no budget to scale the website, then why push a massive sale message? There is no customer logic in that either. If you can't cope with an anticipated traffic surge, then you gradually deploy the sale to customer segments in a controlled manner to reduce the pressure on your servers - start with email customers as an 'exclusive', then open up to general website.

What hasn't be raised in the discussion is the brand damage that an event like this triggers. If you take the Debenhams example, they lost huge amounts of traffic to major rivals like M&S. Big mistake. It also affects first time visitors whose perceptions of quality will diminuish if the site does not function as expected.

I understand your comment Richard about the disconnect between Marketing & IT - it happens far too often. This may well have been the case at Next and nobody anticipated the extent of the surge. However, any major plan like this in a retailer of Next's size will surely have been approved by a Director? So why didn't anybody at senior management level question scalability and fallover procedures?

Hopefully they will learn the lesson and deliver improved customer service next time.

about 7 years ago

Richard Bundock

Richard Bundock, Managing Director at Cohaesus

@jamesgurd - You make a good point.

Often, in my experience, when it gets to board level the decision making is based on the immediate numbers only (short-term thinking). In fact, a lot of Finance Directors have responsibility for IT. And website development/support falls under IT in most companies. Compound this with an understaffed software engineering team who probably have to bring in contractors to help, leaving the company’s knowledge fragmented – so you end up with ‘workarounds’. 

This would appear to be a big workaround. A very well planned one.

about 7 years ago

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Craig Smith

what kind of article is this without any numbers to back up the headline

how many users were on the site at the time? how many sales were closed?

and.....would you rather everyone who tries to access the sale to be given a session and then the whole system slows to a crawl effectively killing everyones purchase journey???

I am guessing the reality is that there were more customers on the site than has ever been on any sale website at any one time before and judging by the fact that people were getting the queue page it looks like it all held together as designed and probably took a massive amount of money

about 7 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@whiteknight plenty of other retailers have managed to handle the extra web traffic generated by sales, and as Richard points out, there are better ways to handle the problem.

@Craig Smith Of course there was a large amount of traffic on the site at the time, but I don't think there is any reason to believe the traffic was out of the ordinary for a sale. 

Making users queue for up to 20 minutes is better than having a slow website, but neither solution is ideal.

about 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

I don't agree that it is not economical to support the volume of traffic, though as Craig points out we'd need to see numbers and compare against underlying traffic patterns to determine the extent of the spike.

We have Clients who scale for major sale periods by introducing additional servers into the cluster and then load balance to spread the surge sensibly. These servers are rented and then removed when traffic falls back to non-seasonal levels. Short term cost and revenue gain, well planned and with a clear financial model behind it as well as putting the customer at the heart of the planning.

Of course you can never estimate the surge to 100% accuracy but based on previous peaks and current traffic trends + the nature of your promotion, you can scale your infrastructure effectively to minimise disruption.

I don't think that a 20 min wait is acceptable online even if Next has provided a user friendly alert page. For new visitors who have no relationship with the brand, that will be a red flag and many will simply not wait which also reduces the likelihood of them returning or responding to future campaigns.

Taking a massive amount of money is great for the business but if you have alienated a large number of potential customers in the process, is that really a sensible business decision?

Not saying I am right but that's my opinion.

thanks

james

about 7 years ago

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Craig Smith

what you are all forgetting is that the Next sale is an exceptional event generating massively more excitment and business than any other online retailer can even dream of

Part of the excitement of the event is the feeling of privelidge felt when allowed into the store. This drives massive impulse purchasing from customers thinking that they must capitalise on the situation once granted entry. It is very normal for customers to add 30 or 40 items to the basket.

M&S and Debenhams would love to have the excuse of these numbers for the falings of their sites during their sales

about 7 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Do you have any numbers to back that up Craig?

about 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

I would indeed be interested as well. 

Does the Next sale generate more traffic and server load than major sales on the likes of Argos, John Lewis, Topshop, New Look etc? Why is Next different to other major multi-channel retail brands?

Does Next really create more excitement than any other online retailer can dream of? Really not convinced that Next engenders that degree of brand loyalty in comparison to other clothing retailers like Topshop, New Look, ASOS etc. I can't see people talking about Next with the same frequency in social forums and networks as brands like ASOS. However, don't have specific metric stats to back that up, only anecdotal evidence from forums, networking & industry reports on top retailers for online traffic, in which Next is nowhere near the top.

Would also love to see comparative stats.

I can understand the priviledge element in the high street, hence the crazy queues for brands like Next, Topshop etc but online? Not at all convinced there is any priviledge element in being made to queue for a website to load.

Like the debate though, always good to get other people's perspective Craig.

thanks

james

about 7 years ago

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Craig Smith

im afraid i cant quote numbers but lets just say its roughly 4-6 times the peak traffic of e-tailers like Comet/DSG/M&S/John Lewis during their sales

and regarding the importance and excitement generated by the Next sale compared to Top Shop or Debenhams......just ask your wives

about 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Ha ha. Asked my girlfriend and she said she couldn't possibly get excited about Next! Now if you had said Primark, or Primarni as she calls it.....

Interesting to learn more about Next - can I ask where you get the info form as never seen any info published about this and always happy to increase my understanding of online retailers.

thanks

james

about 7 years ago

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