Archived: Fancy an early night? ;-)

First published on 15th December 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

If you’ve received your Sale Catalogue and you’ve found something you like, I invite you to go to bed early tonight, just like I’ll be doing. As you’ll no doubt already know, our Winter Sale starts online tomorrow morning at the less-than-Godly hour of 3am and we all need to be up and fresh in time for it. Why on earth do we put ourselves (and you) through this inconvenience?

The simple answer is that we’ve found over the years that it’s the safest – and fairest – time of day for us to start a sale. Here’s a little of what we’ve learned over the years: I’m afraid to say that starting an online Sale in working hours has proved to be a complete ‘no-no’. We tried it one Christmas Eve and it instantly killed all our systems. It meant that I had slightly depressed Christmas that year and I’m sure lots of customers were disappointed.

Unfortunately, the fact that it was so easy for everyone to access the Sale was precisely the reason it was so difficult for us to handle. We had to find a way of ‘frightening off’ some of the initial surge in demand. The obvious solution is, I’m afraid, unsociable hours – which is why we’ve started our Sales overnight for the last few years. In fact, midnight used to be our preferred time but even this could lead to problems. If the site still ran slowly over the first hour or so, customers who had planned to stay up until midnight to spend half an hour shopping online were still up at 2am and starting to complain that they hadn’t been to bed yet.

We felt that not only was 3am even more inconvenient (and therefore even safer), it also meant users are more likely to have had some sleep and therefore any delays (perish the thought) should be less troublesome – we hope… There’s also an inherent fairness in making things really awkward for everybody. It means that those who inconvenience themselves the most are most entitled to the deals which are least commonly available, so morally, it seems to work well. It’s the same ‘law of the jungle’ that governs other areas where demand hugely exceeds supply, like tickets for Cup Finals or Glastonbury.

It sounds like Customer Service heresy to say so, but it’s the simple fact that few retailers will admit – even though everybody knows it: If you want something enough, you’ll do what it takes to get it. There, I’ve said it. Please don’t think less of me. I’m just trying to be honest with you!

All Sales are naturally very busy times and to an extent, we as customers do with in reason accept that fact – don’t forget, we’re all somebody’s customer, so I feel I can say that. When Next (for example) hold their retail Sales (ususally from 5am), there are almost always long queues at every store. The thing about Sales at retail is that it’s obvious to all how many people are there – because you can see them all. While each person has made the effort to travel there, I’m sure that if the event was ridiculously over-subscribed, the fact that such a crowd would be obvious to others often serves to make some of them think again and drive straight back home. Retail Sales are therefore self-limiting to some extent.

On the web, it’s not that straightforward – for anyone. We have a good idea of the number of people who visited the site on the first day of each of our previous sales, so it would be inaccurate to say we don’t know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean to say our estimates will be right this time. It’s also a lot easier to join in as a customer, because you don’t even need to leave your bed, so even our best estimates could be way out. Of course, this has a bearing on the amount we invest in our systems to accommodate this expected demand.

From the customer’s viewpoint the unpredictability will be even more frustrating. Over-subscribed websites work slower (or fall over completely) and items sell out sooner, all things likely to frustrate people and understandably so. At least the company holding the online Sale will know why things are slow – or worse – because they can see the visitor stats. The poor customer may appreciate it’s busy but they won’t know the just how many people are also online’, so there’s a chance they’ll get even more frustrated. Unlike with retail, this self-limiting factor just isn’t there. I should pause here to point out that I appear to be painting a very negative picture about the process. That’s because we try wherever possible to bear in mind a ‘busiest day imaginable’ scenario – so we can prepare to handle it. I refer you to my earlier blog about store openings The Perils of Success, in which a similar theme is explored: being too busy can be worse than not being busy enough.

Yes we’ve had our moments over the years where our online Sales have sailed close to the wind of disappointment in some quarters and I’m also sure it’s impossible to impress all of the people all of the time – although we’ll never stop trying to do that. Over the last two years, I feel we have got a lot closer to the kind of infrastructure that allows us to deal with such a vastly inflated demand.

This year, I believe we’ve been able to improve our capability even more, so I’m optimistic (make that cautiously optimistic) that this Sale will be our best ever – for all of us! In recent years, we’ve been let down firstly by hardware (the boxes of physical kit we have) and then by bandwidth (the ‘speed’ of our web connection). Consequently, it’s required us to add more web servers and a load balancer to ensure that more people can interact with the site at the same time. We’ve also freed up our systems by removing functions like ‘WebChat’ and ‘Others also bought’ for the busiest times.

The other big difference this year is that we’ve been able to increase our bandwidth by a factor of 12. Does this mean we can handle 12 times the demand? In theory, yes but in practice, we’ll have to wait and see… Eventually, if our IT team have done all they can do and we’re still busier than expected, we will at some point run out of things to sell. In effect, our stock levels will have become the ‘weak link’ in the system. We buy and make available ever more stock for our Winter Sale each year and we’ve done that again this year but obviously no seller expects to hold significantly more than they believe they can sell.

Again, to the frustrated customer, a problem here may look like we don’t know what we’re doing – but that’s because they can’t possibly know how many other people are online – or what they are buying. To give you an idea of our online Sale stock this year, it’s more than we currently have at our Ashton and Cannock stores combined. Will that be enough, just right or too much? My answer today, the day before the Sale is that I think it will be about right – although I’m sure that some of the lines will sell out very quickly. I will however know a lot more by this time tomorrow – if I’m still awake!!

If you’re planning to go online tomorrow at 3am, good luck and email me with your comments either way.

Paul.

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