Surviving Valentine’s Day at

The surge of online buying around Valentine’s Day has begun, and is prepared. More precisely, it has been prepared for weeks.

On Valentine’s Day and the two days leading up to it, the number of transactions handled by the Carle Place, N.Y.-based retailer jumps to 10 times its usual level. It’s like the accountant who suddenly gets 35 calls on April 13.

“You hit the Monday of Valentine’s Day week and the traffic just jumps,” says Chris McCann, the company’s president. “It’s all us last-minute men.”

With Web transactions now representing three quarters of 1-800-Flowers’ business, the company has put in place an Internet architecture that can accommodate the predictable spikes in business that come this week, around Mother’s Day and during the Christmas holiday season.

The architecture balances loads across three geographically dispersed systems–McCann won’t reveal the locations, but says AT&T does the hosting–that each has three cells. The user experience doesn’t change, but an eagle-eyed visitor might notice after typing in that he is being routed to or (Besides 4 and 11, the other cells are 12, 21, 22 and 32.)

Ira Sheinwald, the company’s vice president of infrastructure services, says that each of the three main hosting sites gets tested in advance of Valentine’s Day. In particular, starting in January, the company methodically takes each hosting facility offline for a few days to stress-test it. With the help of Hewlett-Packard unit Mercury Interactive, 1-800-Flowers simulates a transaction load similar to what it anticipates on Valentine’s Day and fixes any problems it finds. When one of the hosting sites is undergoing testing, all transactions are temporarily handled by the other two.

Several weeks before Valentine’s Day, the technology department stops making changes to the systems. “We have very firm freeze dates,” Sheinwald says.

Its discipline about technology–the company also has an I.T. checklist of 37 items, from network connections to database performance, that it goes through in advance of any peak event–has helped 1 800-Flowers grow from a single retail store in 1976 to an $800-million-a-year business today.

McCann says the Web is 1-800-Flowers’ most profitable business, not only because it limits the need for telephone operators but also because Web customers are easier to reach via marketing and more apt to become repeat customers.

1-800 Flowers does most of its application development over the summer, after the crush of Mother’s Day is over and before preparations for Christmas have begun.

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