For American retailers touting wares online, the aggressive marketing push that launched the holiday season produced the intended result: over the holiday shopping weekend a record number of shoppers clicked and bought an array of marked-down products, from new televisions to laptop computers.
Perhaps it worked too well. Many prominent retailers, from Toys 'R' Us to Dell Computer, were so swamped with orders that their systems buckled under the strain, turning this year's Black Friday and Cyber Monday into something of a festival of consumer frustration.
Many shoppers experienced canceled orders, followed by lengthy and ultimately fruitless telephone conversations with customer service representatives.
The supposed efficiency of e-commerce gave way to a feeling of being far away from tangible stores, where real products can be found on shelves and real people are on hand to answer questions and ring up sales.
On the Toys 'R' Us Facebook page, one of many fuming commenters wrote Thursday night, "Thanks Toys R Us for cancelling my order and refusing to do anything to right the situation when my items are in stock at the local store!!!"
Retail experts described this year's online systems failures as the result of too much marketing, combined with not enough attention to the back office. As growing numbers of shoppers are enticed to forgo bricks and mortar and go online, merchants have failed to add and upgrade the needed technology to process the resulting orders.
The National Retail Federation estimated that a record 129 million shoppers went online to shop during the Black Friday shopping weekend this year, an increase of 25 million people since 2010.
"Online the whole country is now queuing up at one store," said Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. "That has to be a recipe for trouble."
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A spokeswoman for Toys 'R' Us said the holiday rush had overwhelmed the retailer. "This week is one of the busiest for online shopping across the industry and Toysrus.com is no exception," Toys 'R' Us spokeswoman Jennifer Albano told CNN.
Kohl's was among the brands that also had to cancel some orders. The store's spokeswoman Vicki Shamion said high traffic volume for the store's website led to some orders for discounted items, like a Keurig B-60 coffee maker, proceeding even after the item had actually sold out.
While that has left many consumers without their deals, it has also left many people questioning the reliability of some retailers to handle online orders.
"Hearing about these things makes customers more cautious," said Karen Edwards, a retail expert who teaches at the University of South Carolina. "They'll be less willing to wait if there are delays online, and will abandon their carts."
Last year, Best Buy canceled some Black Friday orders only days before Christmas, which resulted in serious customer blowback in online forums. This year, the store reportedly gave much more conservative delivery dates to manage customer expectations, said Jordy Leiser, the CEO of StellaService, a customer service evaluation company.
Even as customers faced disappointment about lost orders, long waits to speak with customer service representatives compounded the issue this week.
At Dell, customers faced hours-long wait times to speak with a live person, emails to The Huffington Post revealed. The company said on Wednesday it was adding staff to handle the call volume in order to get hold times down.
Among the top 25 Internet retailers, Walmart, which owns Sam's Club, Dell and Toys 'R' Us ranked near the bottom for average call wait times over the long weekend, according to a survey from StellaService.
"When expectations and reality don't line up, that's when customers get most infuriated," Leiser said.
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