Cyber Monday crashes an online-shopping tradition

As white-collar workers return desultorily to their desk jobs, they waste time by shopping online. To capitalize on this, a group of online retailers invented "Cyber Monday," a day of Internet discounts to match Black Friday's in-store deals. You'd think that the planned traffic from such a staged event would go off smoothly. But you'd be wrong.

Gap.com went down today, as did the websites of Victoria's Secret, Home Depot, and CompUSA. Williams-Sonoma, the kitchenware retailer, saw slowdowns on its ordering page. A tipster tells us he had problems with Borders and DiscoveryStore.com. A cottage industry of analysts — Gomez, Keynote, Pingdom, StorefrontBackTalk and others — have sprung up to track the outages.

E-commerce is no longer a novelty. Why don't the stores just work? The first thought is that cheapskate retailers have skimped on spending, but that's usually not the case, or the cause. Bandwidth and servers are cheaper than ever.

The problem usually comes down to the database that stores product information and orders, a key system which gets hammered when discounts prompt a surge of traffic. As online shopping grows and grows, planning for spurts of visitors becomes more art than science — and while the database is most frequently the problem, the fix is different every time.

It's hard to weep for Cyber Monday's frustrated shoppers. Not being able to spend money at your desk, with your employer paying you, strikes me as a particularly upper-middle-class problem to have. The good news for the offline shoppers who risk being trampled: Laptops are cheaper than ever, with stores like Walmart selling them for $499 or less. Cyber Monday will never go off without a glitch — but if a "server not available" message is the worst problem shoppers face, they should count their blessings.

(Photo by BohPhoto)