Sears' Web Goof: 5 Million Customers Blocked

The Sears Tower has a new name: Willis Tower.
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This column was written by Evan Schuman, the editor of StorefrontBacktalk, a site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and security issues. Retail Realities appears every Friday. Evan can be reached at e-mail and on Twitter.

When Sears upgraded its E-Commerce site's infrastructure in late August, it inadvertently blocked all visitors who don't accept cookies, a move that the $44 billion chain is now attempting to fix.

Although both industry and Sears sources estimate that only 1.2 to 3 percent of U.S. shoppers block cookies these days, it could still prevent almost 5 million U.S. shoppers from giving any of their e-dollars to Sears. And it's another reminder of the unintended consequences of Web and mobile site infrastructure changes.

"This seems to be a recurring problem with any major site changes. You just never know the consequences until you roll it out and hold your breath to see what happens." said Forrester Research E-Commerce Analyst Sucharita Mulpuru.

That's a lesson Sears already learned (or should have learned) last August, when a deal with offsite cache vendor Akamai inadvertently allowed some devious site visitors to change the Web pages for other visitors. Those changes made Sears' pages to appear to be selling baby-cooking devices.

Sears apparently had good reason to pursue an upgrade, given that it was seen as one of the slowest of the major retail sites during last year's holiday shopping season. It's also been experiencing a few challenges in its stores with pricing discrepancies.

The latest problem apparently kicked in on August 19, when Sears changed its Web pages to allow for more customization, according to Web traffic tracking firm Pingdom. Only after launch was it discovered that the changes actually blocked customers whose browsers happen to block cookies.

Cookie-blocking has steadily dropped in popularity in recent years, making this less of an issue. But many consumers are not even aware of what their settings are, either accepting the default software settings or letting it stay where it was set when installed (perhaps by someone else).

How many consumers will likely be impacted? Forrester Researcher projects that about 160 million Americans will shop online this year. Given the range of 1.2 to 3 percent, that adds up to between 1.9 million and 4.8 million U.S. shoppers who will have a new Sears tagline: "Sears, Where America Shops,
Except The 4.8 Million Of You That Block Cookies."

Forrester Research VP/Principal Analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, who specializes in E-Commerce, said what caught her off-guard was how one of the nation's oldest and largest retail chains learned of the situation.

"The most surprising thing about the discovery of the problem was that it happened by a vendor, not by anyone on [Sears'] customer service team, or anyone internal who had different settings on PCs at home," she said.

Further complicating the Sears cookie problem is the fact that the errors greeting consumers-at least in the major Windows browsers-don't go out of their way to point to cookie-blocking being the problem. On Firefox, for example, consumers are told "The page isn't redirecting properly" and "Firefox has detected that the server is redirecting the request for this address in a way that will never complete."

Only in the third line-and in a decidedly smaller font/typeface-does the message mention "this problem can sometimes be caused by disabling or refusing to accept cookies.

The resultant Safari error page doesn't even mention cookies. "Safari can't open the page." It then adds, "too many redirects occurred trying to open [Sears.com]. This might occur if you open a page that is redirected to open another page, which is then redirected to open the original page."

Google Chrome says the page "has a redirect loop" and later mentions-again, in a smaller font/typeface-that allowing third-party cookies could help. Internet Explorer offers the shortest-and least helpful-message, with a succinct "Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage."

Opera's error says "Redirection Status" and directs site visitors to click on a specific Sears link that it displays and then helpfully toggles back and forth between various links before eventually giving up and showing the original error page again.

The problem with Sears started generating some "page down" reports from some Web tracking firms, including Pingdom, and some Web site services also reported the site down, such as the wonderfully named http://downforeveryoneorjustme.com/.

Sears representatives confirmed its site now blocks cookie-blocking customers and said it was not intentional, but an accidental side effect of the new site changes.

Pingdom was the first to discover the problem. "Sears' new site implementation sets a cookie and performs a redirect, and the target demands that this cookie is still there," said Pingdom web analyst Peter Alguacil. "Thus, infinite redirects, over and over again as we test their site--because they keep looking for that cookie and sending us back to the beginning when it isn't there" was the issue.

The divisional VP of PR for Sears, Tom Aiello, stressed the advantages of shopping with cookies activated, saying it allows for "a more feature-rich experience" because it's easier for consumers to save preferences. Still, he added that Sears is "quickly working on alternative solutions" for customers who happen to block cookies.
By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com