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Finger-pointing after Target site crash

Retailer, not Mass. firms, bears the brunt

Empty shelves remained after shoppers bought out much of US retailer Target’s new Missoni fashion line at a store in Vista, Calif., on Tuesday. Empty shelves remained after shoppers bought out much of US retailer Target’s new Missoni fashion line at a store in Vista, Calif., on Tuesday. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / September 15, 2011

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The three Massachusetts companies that help run Target Corp.’s new website apparently weren’t to blame for the site’s crash on Tuesday, when an overload of customers tried to snatch up high-end designer Missoni’s cheap and chic new line.

The problem was that Target underestimated the level of traffic the debut of the Missoni line would draw, analysts said. And Endeca Technologies Inc., a Cambridge company that provides search and navigation functions for the Target site, said the infrastructure that hosts the site, which is run by telecommunications company AT&T, became a bottleneck.

“It was basically the gateway to getting into the site that wasn’t set up to handle that volume,’’ said John Andrews, vice president of marketing and product management at Endeca.

Target launched a completely redesigned website last month, only weeks ahead of the Missoni promotion. Building the new company site was probably one of the biggest e-commerce projects in history, Andrews said.

“I don’t know of any other major brands with the kinds of traffic and revenue that Target has that basically changed everything all at once,’’ he said. “Aside from the challenges yesterday and a few other hiccups, it’s gone very well.’’

It took two years to develop the new site, an effort led by SapientNitro, an Internet marketing and software company based in Boston. Other Target site partners include IBM Corp., AT&T - the hosting provider - and Akamai Technologies Inc., the giant Internet infrastructure firm based in Cambridge, which stores some of Target’s content on its network of servers all over the world.

SapientNitro and Akamai declined to comment on the crash, deferring to Target.

To prepare for large surges in online shopping, retail websites usually make sure they have enough server capacity to handle slightly more traffic than is generated by Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, said Andrews.

Site traffic on Tuesday was greater than on Black Friday, according to Target. Eric Hausman, a spokesman for the retailer, said there was “an unprecedented demand.’’

The promotion is the latest in which Target partners with an upscale designer, who creates an affordable line to be sold at the retailer’s stores. The site crash began in the early morning hours, shortly after Target introduced the Missoni line, which included products ranging from bicycles and dinner plates to sweaters.

The site continued to malfunction throughout the day.

After helping a friend stock up on Missoni merchandise at two Target stores yesterday, Melissa Massello of Somerville, general manager of events at online trading site Swap.com, used a break at work to see if she could make a few purchases online.

“I wanted to see if anything was left, [and] I did think that by early afternoon, when I went to check, that the site would be back up,’’ said Massello.

Like many shoppers, she was instead redirected to a page featuring the iconic Target bull terrier and an apology for the site’s inaccessibility.

Massello said shoppers may have expected that items would be sold out, but they probably didn’t think that “they wouldn’t even be able to get on the site.’’

At the Shop.org Annual Summit, a digital retail industry conference at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center yesterday, the website crash was a popular topic among attendees.

Some said that the retailer’s online misstep could hurt Target’s image.

“It’s totally embarrassing,’’ said Jim Cain, a Canadian-based Web analyst. “It was just a badly done deployment. Normally, this doesn’t happen with the really big companies. The site being down for that many hours must have cost them a lot of money. That’s millions and millions of dollars.’’

Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation, which sponsored the e-commerce convention, said that it’s not as common for retail websites to crash today as it was years ago, especially during the heavy shopping days of Cyber Monday or Black Friday.

But she said that it’s frustrating for shoppers and companies when a retailer’s website is down during a product launch. “Somebody goes to a website and they can’t get on, of course there is a level of frustration,’’ Davis said. “As a retailer, that can [also] be a frustrating and difficult situation because of lost sales, but sometimes you can’t predict spikes in traffic.’’

Yesterday, the Target site was operational again.

It featured a large ad for the Missoni line on the home page, but many of the products were sold out.

Disappointed online customers could still find plenty of the items even if they weren’t available on the retailer’s site.

All they had to do was go the online auction site eBay, where more than 30,000 Missoni for Target items were listed for sale.

Johnny Diaz and Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Taryn Luna can be reached at tluna@globe.com.


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