Target.com, the website for the major US retail company, is down right now. In related news, I am still awake at 3:30 am (atypical of me, even for a weekend night) and my wife is patiently clicking the refresh button on her computer. This current scenario is the result of a poorly-handled product launch, made worse by “quick fixes” and a lack of communication between company and consumer. Let’s break it down into the good, the bad, and the ugly, and see what we can learn from it. Maybe by the end of it all, the site will be back up, and everyone will be happy.

The Good

Target announced some time ago that they were partnering with fashion line Lilly Pulitzer to bring some exclusive new products to Target online and retail stores. Although there was some backlash from Lilly “purists”, this generally seems like a good partnership – Target is able to continue it’s strong tradition of bringing popular and often out-of-reach fashion to its consumers, and Lilly Pulitzer is able to introduce the product to consumers just outside the margins of its target audience.

The Bad

Leading up to today’s product launch, Target was surprisingly quiet about an actual launch time. The in-store launch, today – April 19th, was known, but we now live in a digital, always-on world where April 19th doesn’t mean “whenever the store opens on Saturday”; it means “12:00:00 AM”. The question is, whose “12:00:00 AM” is it?

Target operates across the United States, but its headquarters are located in Minneapolis, the Central timezone. After a launch party event two days ago, word got out that the online availability would begin sometime “between 1 and 2 am CST”. Again, this was only a rumor. Many East Coast shoppers still faithfully checked the site at midnight their time, only to find that the site hadn’t updated from its “Lookbook” (preview) format. So then it was only logical to assume that midnight meant Midnight CST, maybe?

The Ugly

But wait! Social Media to the rescue! From among the crowd emerges a tweet. Then another, then another! It seems that there is a way to obtain access to this secret chamber of Lilly Pulitzer for Target goodies. Links begin flying around online, not to the proper Target.com desktop site but to mobile? It soon becomes apparent that a Google search for the exact product name will lead consumers to the Target mobile site detail page for that item, AND allow them to add it to their cart and check out.

Many consumers began rapidly ordering through this special method. However, Target had other plans – if all of their inventory sold out before they officially released the product, that would look bad on them and piss off everyone who was playing by the rules. Stepping into emergency response mode, they immediately did three things, one of which was clever, one of which seemed clever until it backfired later, and one of which was clever but risky.

First, they set the remaining inventory values of every Lilly item to 0. This meant that anyone coming to the site via the workaround would see “item unavailable”, and prevent them from adding it to their cart and checking out. This was likely an easy fix for one of their engineers to make, and stops the problem from escalating further (and for Target, it is a problem – they had an intended release time and people were not honoring it).

Second, it seems that for certain items that were not marked inventory zero, that adding them to your cart would wipe your cart. For example, my wife was able to add a gold bracelet to her cart, but once she also added a bathing suit top, she was taken to a “sorry, your cart is empty” page. This seems like a more complex back-end fix to the problem. Unfortunately, it appears that it later blew up.

As of a few minutes ago, while Target.com as a whole was still up, attempting to view your cart would lead to a dead end. Clearly, something about the “add to cart” code had been corrupted, possibly by the earlier “fix”. Even though the site had switched from “preview” to “buying” mode, nothing could be added to the cart and the cart itself could not be viewed (so checking out was impossible). Then the whole site came down.

Third, the President of Target, Jason Goldberger (@jasongoldberger) took to Twitter to respond to tweets and defuse some of the tension. Putting a top executive front and center in the epicenter of a PR storm can potentially be disastrous, but Jason has handled it extremely well in my opinion. He responded first to questions about release timing (ambiguously, but eventually less so). After the Google -> Mobile Site -> Checkout bug had been patched, he assured consumers that all purchases made would be honored. He also assured consumers that had not yet had a chance to buy their desired product that there was, in fact, still inventory (see above regarding setting remaining inventory to zero as a quick fix to prevent further early orders from going through).

Since then, however, his feed has been mostly quiet, save for a retweet of @TargetStyle saying that “overwhelming excitement” has taken the site down.

My general impression is that Target is trying to fix things quickly and not necessarily correctly. When you’re a major online retailer, literally every minute your site is down can cost you millions of dollars in revenue. However, had they taken the time to fix the issue correctly (or better yet, done the due diligence to prevent the issue from happening in the first place), they wouldn’t be facing a horde of angry consumers (most unfortunately about all of this is that East Coast consumers are the most upset – they’re the ones up at 4 AM and also the strongest demographic of Lilly Pulitzer shoppers) or what will soon be some negative PR in the tech/retail community.

This whole issue shows the importance of several facets of running a massive online retail company. First of all, why didn’t Target simply say “Available at midnight EST”? The lack of communication set the stage for the ensuing confusion and anger. Second, they threw together a “quick fix” that ended up doing more damage than it prevented. Setting inventory to zero would have been enough to prevent new items from being added to carts – the clearing cart behavior was likely added to prevent existing carts from reaching checkout. It was probably this effort to save some marginal products from escaping early that caused so many issues down the line, when the cart itself crashed the server. Third, having an active Twitter presence can go a long way to stifling consumer anger, but only so far. Hopefully, for every Lilly Pulitzer fan and Jason Goldberger’s sake, this will be resolved soon.


Were you part of the experience? Tried to buy something and couldn’t? Managed to snag some key items via the Google -> Mobile site trick? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments!


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Mathew is an Economics major from Brown University with a penchant for puns and analogies (as if you couldn't tell by reading this blog). He lives in Boston with his wife, Kate, and two dogs, Teddy and Luna.

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