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Diary of $3M Black Friday/Cyber Monday Loss

By Joe Skorupa

Piecing together details of the $3 million loss of sales at Finishline.com between November 19, 2012 and December 6 makes it clear the website not only crashed on Cyber Monday but major problems emerged in the week prior to the busiest weekend of the holiday selling season. Two points emerge from this epic fail that are relevant to retailers: 1. It is a textbook case of how not to launch a big website upgrade, and 2. Loyal customers will take to social media to air dirty laundry. 
 
"Boo! The website is down :(“

"The new website is ridiculous. Bring back the old website.”

“I completely agree with everyone else. The new website is horrible.”

Messages like this littered the Finish Lline'a Facebook page during the critical selling period between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, November 23, 2012 to November 26. And these are among the kinder messages. Many used terms that don’t need to be repeated. Many others called for heads to roll.

The Facebook messages provide an interesting diary of the Finishline.com's saga that began on November 19 with the launch of a new website. The date is significant because it is a week before the start of the largest marketing campaign of the year, which drives shoppers to the website in huge numbers. Traffic to e-commerce websites during this long weekend for the typical retailer is three or four times higher than the busiest day during the rest of the year.

According to Glenn S. Lyon, chairman, CEO and member of the Indianapolis-based Finish Line strategy committee, Finish Line’s new website came “online November 19 and cost us approximately $3 million in lost sales…Following the launch, it became apparent that the customer experience was negatively impacted, evidenced by a decline in several key performance indicators.”

After speaking to several people at the recent NRF Big Show and reading through customer comments on the Finish Line’s Facebook Timeline I was able to piece together some details of what went wrong.
 
Indianapolis, We Have a Problem

“The site used to be user friendly. Now I can’t sort items or view all items (even when I hit the view all button.)”

“You guys missed the mark on the new website design. Way too many clicks to get to a point and the font is huge.”

“I hope you guys get your website together soon.”

"I do not like your new website. It is not very user friendly.”

Immediately after the new website launched users began expressing displeasure with the design, navigation and user interface. This raises a question I heard several industry experts ask at NRF: Why didn’t the launch team use multi-variant testing to reveal user pain points? This is typically done with a  10-percent segment of users. If the test was done how could such negative reactions be missed?

Soon after the launch it also became apparent that key site functionalities were either difficult to use or failed to operate. Testing functional elements is also a key part of the roll out process and once problems are found they are solved. What could go wrong after the test-and-correct phase is completed?

Actually, quite a few things. Websites for large national retailers are collections of applications, Web services and plug ins that work together. They work invisibly on the front end, so consumers can find products and make purchases, and they work seamlessly on the back end, so retailers can authorize payments and fulfill orders. At least they do this in theory. 

In practice, these functionalities are performed by a mixture of internal and third-party software applications. Some are hosted by the retailer (or by a provider contracted for the purpose) and some are delivered dynamically through the cloud.

Industry experts wonder how much performance testing and stress testing was done at Finishline.com and if it was fully extended all the way through to the systems that are provided by third-parties. Here are some of the difficulties shoppers discovered with key site functions and how they reacted:

 “I have tried to log in, but since you changed all of the passwords I can’t. I clicked the reset. Well, that was three days ago and no e-mail. Checked my spam e-mail also and nothing.”

"Hey Finished Line, Chrome, Firefox & IE9 are not allowing any of my orders to proceed to checkout (green button). You guys dropped the ball at the start of the shopping season. Better luck next summer."

"Your website says FREE shipping, but when adding items to the cart it adds shipping."

"Gee, this is great. Shipping is no longer free (sarcasm)."

Other postings by shoppers noted problems when paying with gift cards, using rewards points, and getting credit for the veteran’s discount. PayPal was also non-functional:

“Last night I had the option of paying via PayPal/Billmelater. This is no longer the case. What is going on?”

“Why did you take the PayPal option off? Possibly the worst time of year to do this. When do you think you might have it back?”

Then, as traffic continued to build to the peak online sales days of the year, the website started to slow down and become impossible for many shoppers to make purchases.

“The site is slower than slow.”

“I have had the flashing Finish Line icon running on my page for over 30 minutes now trying to confirm my order. And I have tried to refresh and nothing.”

“Fix your website! What’s the point of having a sale if you can’t buy anything? I have been trying to make an order for 3 hours.”

“I have been trying for 2 days to submit an order on your site – receive error message every time.”

Finally, the website crashes on Cyber Monday.

“Y’all’s website is down. Are you maybe going to extend your sales because of it?”

“What’s wrong with the website. It’s not loading at all?”

“Wait, you schedule maintenance on Cyber Monday?”

“Extremely disappointed! Boo! You are my go to store, and the one day you have huge Internet sales your website doesn’t work.”

Post Mortem

Clearly the voice of the shopper will be heard in the age of social media (and frankly it is surprising the Finish Line keeps all of these messages visible in their Facebook Timeline). It is also clear that the Finish Line is a strong brand that attracts many loyal customers.

Despite expressing disappointment and frustration at not being able to order Nike Air Jordan Retro 11 sneakers at a sale price it is also clear that many shoppers kept returning to try again and again. And despite a clear thread of anger and lashing out, many shoppers expressed an understanding that things can go wrong at times and a hope that Finish Line will get it right.

“Not very happy today with the new website. I couldn’t place an order at all. Very disappointed. You guys can do way better than this!!!”

“I love you guys, but your new site is terrible.”

“I love Finish Line. I do, but bring back your old website!!!!”

“Please go back to the old site. If it’s not broke don’t fix it!!!”

On December 6, the Finish Line did what its customers suggested: It pulled down the new website and replaced it with the old one. This enabled the Finishline.com to salvage the rest of the holiday selling season, but clearly damage had been done.

Not only were sales missed, but the website problems forced shoppers to use the customer service phone lines, which were overwhelmed and resulted in excessive wait/hold times. Order management records were unreliable and therefore fulfillment was chaotic. These and other problems carried on through December as can be seen in Facebook postings.

Today, the Finish Line's Facebook postings are dominated by comments about the newest Air Jordans and NBA team hoodies. However, looking back Finish Line executives will have to ask some hard questions: Were they too aggressive with the rollout timeline? Were they unrealistic to launch so close to Black Friday? Did they place too much pressure on the internal team and external partners? How well did they handle the social media firestorm? Will customers come back when they get it right?

Despite the loss of sales through the website between November 16 and December 6, Finish Line’s financial report on January 4, 2013 was bullish. Comparative sales for the quarter increased 3.6% and the digital portion rose to 14% of total sales.

As a result, the Finish Line feels confident in pursuing its current strategy. “We remain steadfast in our belief that technology will continue to drive broad changes in the retail landscape,” said CEO Glenn Lyon.” We are committed to our core systems investments and vision of developing a premier omnichannel business.”

No doubt many 2012 online holiday shoppers will remain loyal to Finishline.com as long as steps are taken internally and externally to earn it. The good news is there are 12 months before the next holiday selling season to get it right.

Related Stories:

Finish Line E-Commerdce Hiccup Cost Retailer $3M in Lost Sales
 
Finish Line Goes the Distance with Demandware Commerce



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