A good online checkout should be like shopping in a supermarket with plenty of open tills. Photo – Flickr/nateOne
Even when your warehouse’s shelves are stocked, your supply is directly proportional to your website’s availability, speed and performance. Your customer satisfaction levels also hit a glass ceiling when your website can’t cope with demand.
This morning, the Nexus 4 phone sold out in the UK through Google’s online Play Store in less than 30 minutes. However, buyers and would-be buyers alike reported website inconsistencies, errors, freeze-ups, slow-downs, failed transactions, mistaken duplicate transactions, and lack of purchase confirmation. And this is the renowned kings of web speed Google. So how do you keep a website up and customers happy when there’s such high demand?
Imagine a supermarket checkout area. Imagine queuing up, having your items scanned by a cashier, but before you can pay, the cashier starts serving the next person in the queue as soon as they arrive – then, if all the items you’re trying to buy sell out in the meantime, you’re not allowed to buy the item anymore and leave the shop empty handed.
All too often this is an accurate metaphor for buying high demand products online, and the problem is that these complicated systems need to be built with scale in mind.
A good online transaction should work more like a supermarket with plenty of checkouts open, where customers are served consistently, one at a time, first come first served.
Obviously there will be a lot of disappointment when demand naturally outstrips supply, such as when there are only 140,000 Glastonbury tickets or allegedly 30,000 Nexus 4 phones on sale, yet millions of people who want to buy one.
However, even without such restrictions or high levels of demand such as in the case of the Nexus 4, your supply is actually only as great as your website’s capacity to take orders. A crashed website means you’re not moving any stock whatsoever, and it’s left sitting in your warehouse, even where there is plenty of demand.
To make matters worse, transactional websites are very complex, meaning the chances are greater for the site to stumble or fall when a lot of people are using it at once – and people get anxious when payment details are involved, even if they succeed in buying your product – Anyone who tried to buy a Nexus 4 on the first day can attest to that.
Technology means we shouldn’t have to queue around the block for the latest gadgets. Photo – Flickr/dan taylor
It took a painful 24 hours for Glastonbury to sell out in 2004 and the experience lives on in the memories of those who suffered through it. Event organiser Michael Eavis was later quoted as saying “We can improve the software, definitely – but is it a good thing to sell them all out in one hour? We could have sold them out last night in five minutes, but is that a good thing? I don’t think it is you know, I’d rather string it out a bit.”
The software was indeed improved – fast forward to a year later and the same number of tickets went at a much swifter 3 hours. According to the man who built the system (and Intechnica co-founder) Andy Still, “Under testing, the system used for 2005’s Glastonbury ticket sales was capable of selling 100,000 tickets in under a minute, but we throttled it to give people a wider window to buy their tickets in the interest of fairness.”
So is it possible to sell out quickly without your website falling over? Yes, but only when the system is designed to perform properly.