Gap Can't Afford Online Retail Holes

By Jason Boog  |  Posted 09-21-2005
Shopped online at gap.com lately? Well, no worries. Neither has anybody else.

While overhauling its online retail presence this month, Gap Inc. completely shut down gap.com for nine days straight—a move that made Web developers and retail analysts wince. The online retail store is back online now, but apparently only available to a limited number of users.

Gap Inc. has not announced a final go-live date for gap.com.

"An outage is the worst thing that can happen," explained Real Tech News founder and Web analyst Alice Hill. "Think back to eBay going down, and last fall's PayPal outage. These instances are huge PR disasters—they anger and frustrate people, and for the Gap it also means a loss in sales."

According to Gap Inc., its September overhaul also extended to some of its other retail sites, including GapKids.com, BabyGap.com, GapMaternity.com, GapBody.com and OldNavyKids.com, most of which were down for several days.

The financial impact of the downtime won't be calculated until Gap Inc. releases its September earnings report next month.

The overhaul followed a tough August for the clothing retailer. Last month, Gap reported a 5 percent decrease in monthly sales compared to August 2004—a $6 million slippage.

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The shutdown also comes at a time when consumers are just beginning to shop for fall and winter clothing.

Some analysts defended the shutdown, arguing that online sales only account for 4 percent of the overall retail market, or about the volume of 2 or 3 big stores for a franchise-oriented company like the Gap.

Yet, experts agree, it's better to maintain an uninterrupted presence online, to build users' trust.

What lessons can other online retailers and site managers take away from the Gap's situation?

Plan for the Future

Consultants urge online retailers to build stronger platforms initially, opening for business with a software package and a plan that can handle the pressures of a redesign.

One metric used to test the reliability of a site design is the quality of "abstraction" the system offers. E-commerce sites utilize complex infrastructures, balancing gigantic user databases, catalogues, accounting systems, inventories and programming code like a precarious tower of building blocks.

"Abstraction is truly tested when one layer is replaced, and the others are expected to be minimally impacted," said Neil Pisane, Vice President of BroadVision Global Services, a company that has designed large-scale Web retail solutions for Circuit City, Sears and HP Shopping.

When abstraction works, the building block tower still stands while individual pieces are removed during a redesign.

Business owners or managers with a stake in their companies' site performance should ensure that their Web architecture stands up to this spec.

Build a Parallel System

Web sites should also rely on a backup infrastructure during redesign to prevent blackouts.

With the help of professional software designers, most big retailers update quietly behind the scenes, without changing the online front page until every bit of new code has been tested.

But officials at Gap insisted that this redesign was too all-encompassing to follow that technique.

"If you are just changing a Web site interface, it's possible," a Gap Inc. spokesperson said. "But when you have more than 10 other systems to change out as well, it's really hard and expensive. Running parallel sites would have required wasted expenditures."

Keep It Simple

Other consultants urge Web retailers to keep sites simple to avoid redesign difficulties. As the Internet evolves at breakneck speed, online retailers often struggle to utilize new technology without sacrificing the familiarity and simplicity of the brand's old Web page.

For example, the in-house designers at Gap.com developed a series of pop-up windows that they hope will speed up shopping and justify the expensive redesign.

Every product features a "Quick Look" mini-window that displays price and available sizes, and allows readers to shuttle through different outfit colors on the grinning models.

The "Shopping Bag" browser displays a picture, description and price tag for every item that the user grabbed while shopping—along with "helpful outfit recommendations."

According to a Gap spokesperson, these pop-up windows reflect the real-time inventory of the online retailer, connecting two formally separate databases within the Gap.com infrastructure.

But Patti Freeman-Evans, a retail strategy consultant at Jupiter Research of Jupitermedia Corp., said this design is a risky one: "In general, most retailers don't use pop-ups very much. Users dislike pop-up ads very strongly."

However, Freeman-Evans did appreciate how the pop-up windows helped customers stay "engaged" with the catalogue while purchasing—a relatively new concept for retailer Web sites.

The true test of the Gap's new online shopping features will be whether the new technology is extensible and can be built upon during future upgrades.

Meanwhile, Web designers and publishers must keep looking for redesign solutions that avoid site blackouts.