Black Friday -- Keep Calm And Carry On Shopping

As a stress test for retailers' online and mobile systems, Black Friday cannot be beaten. As for customer experience, though, it sucks. I'm not just talking about the people who may or may not at some stage today end up in a fistfight over a widescreen tv with a few pounds knocked off -- I'm talking about the online consumer trying desperately to transact despite all that is thrown at them.

Last year I just gave up. No sites worked, and those that claimed to just placed me in a perpetual waiting room. This year things are better, but only just. I gave up on a couple of online gaming stores for committing the cardinal sin of retail -- showing people what they could have bought if they had only shopped a little earlier. Clearly, stock levels were not linked to what the stores were promoting. Try as I might, I just couldn't get a console bundle to move from the page in to my basket on my mobile phone. After many attempts I tried online and added it once or twice, only for it to disappear. Eventually I was notified the offer was out of stock -- but still when I searched again, the bundle was right there with no "out of stock" warning, just adding to my confusion and no doubt that of any other shopper.

In the end, I did what I always do -- fired up John Lewis and just got on with it. The bundles weren't as plentiful, but the site works. Well, kind of. It took a worrisome hour or so for my receipt to be emailed to me. In the meantime, to check that I really had placed an order, a couple of attempts to access my account page ended up with warnings that the site was struggling to cope with demand.

It's ironic, because I was talking with a Brick Lane fashion retailer the other day about how his iPad and an app are his ordering system, combined with a stock-level monitor and cash register. Within a microsecond he can put an "out of stock" banner on anything the system knows is no longer available, as well as have a click-and-collect order ready within a minute. I know Black Friday is a massive rush that must feel like a denial-of-service attack to some unprepared retailers -- but come on guys, let's get some of the basics right. Don't keep on offering something you have sold out of -- and if someone clicks on it, tell them the deal has run out. Don't leave them hanging there wondering why it's not showing up in their basket.

I'm no ecommerce or mcommerce expert, but there must be ways to simulate a trial Black Friday. There must be ways to test how quickly a "sold out" sticker can be slapped across an offer or how soon it can be removed from the site to save confusion.

The way things stand, Black Friday gives you two options -- to have a row with your device as you can't figure out what's going wrong, or a punch up with a real-life shopper over last year's latest flat-screen tv. As for me, I'm just going to -- as the t-shirt would say -- "Keep Calm And Carry On Shopping" anywhere else than a site with a black banner claiming amazing deals I could have got had I got up with the sparrows.

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