|Back in the winter of 1999, when Mobile Enterprise was still Field Force Automation, it contained a small insert magazine called eCRM, which ran a story about the pressure on young online companies to perform under the holiday crush. That winter the country was occupied with wondering whether Y2K was going to wipe our computers clean, and it was the first year, I believe, that my friends and colleagues seriously adopted online shopping, using lunch breaks to search the Web and, with great satisfaction, cross items off their lists without leaving their desk chairs.
It was also a year when many people were still hesitant to pay online with credit cards, and many others still felt the sting of the year before, when overwhelmed companies (Toys R Us was a widely publicized example) were slow to deliver, leaving babes without toys on Christmas morning. Would companies be able to come through this year? Would they be prepared? Copy-editing the story over and over and preparing it for press, I remember the twist of anxiety in my chest as, however subconsciously, I worried for these companies and the mounting task before them.
Rejoining the magazine after a four-year break, I’m sometimes impatient to see us running stories similar to those we ran years ago—deployments to mobile solutions from legacy systems, etc.—because while this industry grows exponentially in some areas, in others it crawls. However, I never again saw a “will the online companies get it together?” story; no longer green, it seems they’ve gotten their acts together and know their abilities and limitations: “Order by Dec. 22 for guaranteed Christmas morning delivery!” Though each holiday season, my mind does briefly wander back to that story, and I imagine the ramping-up going on behind the scenes, and the stress.
So this Valentine’s Day I was shocked, though honestly also amused, to discover that Hallmark’s site had crashed—just like every other Valentine’s Day in recent memory. In fact, Sunday night I made my own silly e-mail Valentines and sent them around to friends, knowing full well that Hallmark.com would be impossible to access come Monday morning. I was right—and still I couldn’t believe it. At 11 a.m. the site was closed to traffic; a posted note said: “Our apologies. Hallmark.com is temporarily offline for maintenance. We want to make sure our site is the best it can be, so we’re doing a bit of house cleaning.” Valentine’s Day—what better day for house cleaning!
At 3:30 the note had been changed to: “Our apologies. Valentine’s Day is keeping us extra busy, and that means our store is full right now. Please try back in a little while.” How is it that Amazon.com and bn.com got their ducks quickly in a row (and they have an actual product to send out) and somehow Hallmark still goofs it every year? In its defense, the Hallmark.com Facts section states that the site’s busiest day was Valentine’s Day 2003, on which it received 2.6 million visits. Which is an enormous amount of traffic—and all the more reason to prepare.
I wonder what this means for the enterprise in the larger scheme. I mean, I assume it hurts brand loyalty—that romantics turned to sites such as Yahoo!, American Greetings and Blue Mountain (all of which worked today) to send cards and will perhaps go directly there next time. But I wonder if, in such a situation, the overall affect on an industry is negative (a big company looses business) or positive, in that perhaps that lost business gets distributed amongst the smaller guys, creating greater competition or at least diversity. (In this example, it could trickle down as far as independent artists, such as www.lorijoysmith.com. Which is astounding. What amazing times these are when a consumer can, in three seconds, switch from a multibillion-dollar company to a young artist working out of her apartment because, for all its money, the big guy can’t handle the traffic.)
The question of the larger affect is one I leave to the researchers and number crunches. Clear to me, however, is that all these years later, the lesson still holds true: One under-prepared company equals many disappointed babes.