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Walmart's Web Site Has a Smooth Black Friday: Q&A With Keynote

On Black Friday consumers weren't just packed into shopping centers at early hours looking for deals. They sat behind their computers looking for bargains. One Internet testing and management firm Keynote Systems (KEYN), tracked the performance of many major retailers' Web sites to see how they held up during the cyber rush. A report the firm put out on Black Friday found that Walmart operated the most stable site, and other strong performers were Best Buy and Sears Holdings. As a sector, apparel stores performed the most poorly. Though the industry's Web sites held up better than last year, Keynote found that issues still came up in the early morning, when stores were featuring their "doorbuster" deals. Ben Rushlo, Keynote's director of competitive research, spoke with BNET Retail about the retail experience online during Black Friday.

BNET: How did retail sites perform in general during Black Friday?
Ben Rushlo: The similar conditions we see every Black Friday were present in this period as well. We saw a few sites that had some major meltdown issues, sites where users wouldn't have been able to get on the site successfully or would have had performance issues that were very significant. By meltdowns, we mean that users would be able to understand the site was having major problems. It could be that there were error pages coming up saying to try back later or the site was very slow compared to others on the Internet. There were a few of those, and there always seems to be a few of those every Black Friday. It surprises us because the sites that we measure are all major retailers, and Black Friday doesn't surprise anyone. It's always the same every year. It's surprising, though it's becoming less and less surprising.

As a whole -- and we measure 30 sites on this index -- I would say Black Friday was pretty average. I think people did O.K. Most sites slowed down somewhat, but those sites didn't melt down, they just slowed down and had periods of errors. There was one apparel site when they posted their deals that day at 5:30 a.m. Eastern when the doors opened, and they were down for about a half hour, and then the rest of the day they were O.K. It was a mixed bag overall. On whole, it was probably better than last year and the year before. Previously we had seen Walmart and Best Buy have issues, but this year they did very well.

BNET: Since Black Friday happens every year at the same time, why are there still these hiccups? Is there just too much traffic for tech departments?
BR: That's the excuse you'll hear from these retailers. You'll hear that the volume was greater than they anticipated. Right, now, in 2009, that's just fundamentally false. Some of the retailers that failed, it's not like they were offering deals on Xbox's or products that were very limited. These were your normal retail sites, so I don't think you could say it's related to special products. Fundamentally, what is happening at these retailers is poor planning, execution and process. It's all the things you think about that go into any sort of meltdown, even outside of the industry. They probably didn't do enough load testing, stress their architecture or had some gaps in their monitoring and measuring. All the things that make these sites successful are probably lacking at some of these other sites.

BNET: Why did Walmart do so well compared to years past?
BR: Walmart is one of our customers. They do plan very well. They do load testing where they actually do synthetic volume on their site to make sure that when these big volumes come up on Black Friday they can handle that. They do very aggressive external monitoring with our company as well. They have a culture that's shifted and really now cares dramatically about the performance and quality of their site. I'm not saying that wasn't the case three years ago, but they're very obsessed with quality, and I think that's made a difference. Other retailers that didn't do so well, we've talked to them, and they're still figuring out the baby steps of measuring performance from the Internet and had a homegrown monitoring solution that showed everything was up. If you have that sort of thing, it's good, but it's sort of like 1990 technology, trying to manage sites that are clearly 2009.

BNET: Why do apparel sites tend to lag in performance?
BR: You tend to have less of a technical process. A lot of these folks are coming from the brick and mortar and putting their sites on the Internet, and I think there's less expertise there than there would be on the electronics side. Obviously, there are a few in apparel, like Zappos.com, that did very well. Their whole business is online, but for a lot of these other ones, their business is probably still focused on the stores that are in the malls, and they're probably not as online savvy.

BNET: For years there was an opinion that brick and mortar e-commerce was way behind the online-only retailers. Has that changed?
BR: Apparel is lagging in that area, but overall, retailers are treating their online channel as a full channel, so they manage it just as they would their brick and mortar channel. The sites like Amazon that had a competitive advantage because they started out virtual, that advantage is gone. I think there are sites that are actually outperforming Amazon. Walmart is a good example, and Best Buy is in there is well. They had better quality on Black Friday than Amazon. Maybe the advantage that Amazon had five years ago in terms of their expertise has shrunk or is nonexistent.

BNET: What were the differences between Black Friday and Cyber Monday?
BR: Interestingly enough, we saw many more issues on Cyber Monday. Instead of being at the malls, people are shopping at home, and you'd expect there'd be some additional pressure on sites. We saw a total of six sites that we would classify as meltdown, and on Black Friday we had two. We also had nine sites with major slowdowns. It was worse. There were many more issues, and apparel was again lagging.

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