It’s 1990, and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee writes the first web browser, thereby revolutionising the world and creating the World Wide Web (please forgive my skipping over this slightly). Five years later, on Thursday 27 April 1995, Take That are at No. 1 with Back for Good (not that I approve), Father Ted is one of the most popular comedies on TV, and Ice Cube’s Friday has just been released at the cinema.

Also on this day: a book purchase from a WHSmith ‘shop’ (based within CompuServe’s UK shopping centre) becomes the UK's first national online shopping service secure transaction. 

The shopping service at launch featured, amongst others, Virgin Megastores/Our Price, Interflora, Dixons, Past Times, and PC World. 

By 2013, the UK accounted for roughly 32% of European e-commerce sales. According to Experian and IMRG, consumers are continuing to spend more online, with UK orders at the end of last year estimated to reach just over one billion in number - at a value of £52.25bn (an increase of 16.2% compared to 2014). 

According to the same source, consumers are continuing to spend more online, with UK orders at the end of last year estimated to reach just over one billion in number - at a value of £52.25bn (an increase of 16.2% compared to 2014).

We’ve come a long way (or have we?)

Back in 1995, we were still relying on printed catalogues for our mail order shopping, and the vast majority of our other purchases were made in person at a retailer outlet.

Like me, you might do the majority of your 'day-to-day' purchases online. You may even have done the majority of last year’s Christmas shopping, online. Working in the industry I’m in, you could argue that I’ve got a little bit more insight into how a good website looks and behaves compared to most people (can I just say at this point, brand new company website due to launch this spring – currently, old version is live).

With recent experience fresh in mind, I wondered how some companies in the retail sector could still get it so wrong, two decades on from online shopping’s inception?
And I found myself questioning whether the ‘big hitters’ are really doing a good enough job of satisfying the typical B2C mass consumer, when it came to overall website user experience (UX)?

I spotted a few common problems running through some of even the biggest retailers’ sites and associated outbound mailers this year.  

Whilst many retailers were really quite spot on, some, who you’d expect to be at the top of their game, presented some clear failings.

Here are just a few I experienced:


  • Some clearly could not cope with the extra traffic generated by launching their post-Christmas sale, causing crashing and server connection time-outs (more on that later)
  • Some failed to communicate the above problem to their customers effectively enough when it happened (more on that later)
  • Poor UX when shopping on mobile devices, ‘labyrinthine’ site structures, poor ‘search’ function, broken links/non-activated assets (poor housekeeping), and a lack of any ‘breadcrumb trail’ facility
  • Many sites were not responsive.  Did you know that, of the top 50 retailers, 20% don't have a transactional mobile site and 46% don't support responsive web design?
  • Missed opportunities for cross-promotion/ upselling

Marketing mailers:

  • Some retailers were sending mailers too frequently (i.e. on a daily basis) with overtly ‘salesly’ content which felt quite pushy and unsophisticated, by today’s content marketing standards
  • Some campaigns seemed completely misfired in terms of tailoring the content towards the consumer and their interests / preferences / purchase history
  • Some mailers were hitting me with too many different messages in one go, with no clear focus 

An annual disappointment

The biggest irritant for me this year was the fact that, despite the obvious traffic spike facing online retailers, some sites were not well-prepared at point of opening their post-Christmas sales.

For the last few years, I’ve been poised to jump online as early as possible on Boxing Day to grab some half-price bargains from a well-known, global retailer of infamously ‘fragrant’ toiletries. And for the past two years, I know that it’s going to be an almost masochistic experience.

This year, I find myself boiling over with rage at the website as it crumbles and folds under the pressure of the extra traffic.  It’s more luck than anything else if I make it through to even adding something to my basket, due to the constant crashing.

Later on the same day, I return to the site in question, now faced with this atrocity:

"What is this?” indeed.

I reach for the nearest bottle of something which will make the pain go away, and end up making a trip to the shop the next day. Hey, sometimes the old-fashioned ways are best...

#firstworldproblems ...yes I know… but every year, I can see that the site has not been invested in very much since the previous Christmas, and the buying experience therefore remains the same – that is, very poor.

To put it into context, Glastonbury can manage around 120,000 transactions on their site in a period of just 30 minutes (assuming we go on the length of time it took for tickets to sell out last year), so we know that it's not beyond the realms of possibility to prepare properly for high volumes of traffic and transactions.

Returning to my story then - you only have to look at the hundreds of comments on their Facebook page from frustrated customers to see that the lack of website improvements made year-on-year is becoming widely recognised by others:


On top of the site being down, I can see that there’s not much communication from the company about what’s gone wrong, and what they’re doing about it. This served to annoy their customers even more.

How could they have managed this aspect better? 

At the very least, I would have expected to see:

  • A clear message on their homepage setting out that there was a problem
  • More helpful, timely communication on their social media pages
  • A mailer sent to their customer database to tell people there’s a problem and they’re trying to fix it  

Some might say they also missed a trick through not even attempting to turn this situation into a positive thing. For example, they had the opportunity to make it up to consumers by offering a ‘sorry’ discount code to those who had been spending hours trying to make a purchase…

As it was, none of the above came to pass.  Dealing with the fallout overall seemed to amount to quite a weak effort by the company concerned. Lessons will have been learned this time though, surely?

Why, oh why...?

Despite the seasonal traffic spike being a recurring issue, the company seem to have done little about it in the following year.  If there were some unique circumstances this year, I'd be the first to cut them some slack.

I doubt very much that it comes down to budget. Perhaps their UK digital team is tiny, and lacks the capacity and support to get the wheels turning on making improvements? They need to be directed from above, but clearly there’s apathy about the yearly complaints, or a lack of understanding about what is needed to remedy it.

Then again, the digital team will have access to more than enough data from previous years, which would be enough to use for forecasting the future. It's also strong evidence for any case made in favour of investing in improvements.

Is there a bigger problem hiding here?

It could actually be that much more than the website platform is in need of a review. From reading comments on their Facebook page, I got the impression that there may be a wider issue with their online ordering system, and a general lack of contingency when things go wrong. Some Facebook comments conveyed, for example, that cash had been paid, but customers received no email notification to confirm their order - likely throwing uncertainty on whether their order had registered properly on their systems. So maybe some processes need to be reassessed and redesigned, so that they can be pieced back together to work more effectively?

Despite my rant above, it is a genuine shame when well-loved companies do not invest in upgrading their CMS and/or hosting server, and don’t look to proactively make improvements to their UX and transactional systems to ensure their site is secure, stable and able to cope with spikes of extra (albeit seasonal) traffic.

It’s an easy win to make sure that your online shop is fit for purpose, and set up to cope with seasonal spikes in web traffic and purchases. Retailers should be grabbing the opportunity to fix any problems, so that they can delight their customers, and keep levels of both brand advocacy and loyalty, strong.

Hopefully this year, I won’t need to wait behind 7,850 others to make a purchase.