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Online Sellers Test Customer Patience and Satisfaction With Short Supply of Hot Gifts

Posted by: David Kiley on December 6, 2006


From Guest Blogger Diane Brady:

One-day sales are a time-tested marketing ploy in the retail world. Slash the price of a popular item and the people will come. But the strategy can quickly backfire in the online world as systems crash or customers are frozen out for long stretches of time without knowing what’s going on.

Witness the anger over’s sale of Xbox 360 machines for $100 on Nov. 23..Sure, everyone knew that there were only 1,000 available at that price, but the inability of even the most tech-savvy customers to get a chance at the deal created a lot of ill will. And the resulting response from customer service didn’t help matters. As one irate potential customer put it: “I felt like I didn’t even have a shot.” What bothered him wasn’t losing out on the 360 but “the fact that I felt like they don’t care.”

Now comes with its “12 Days O’ Christmas” promotion. It launched on Dec. 5 with a $9.99 DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The deal started at noon and I naively went to the site five minutes beforehand to buy the item for someone on my list (At $10, I was sure I could find a willing recipient). My purchase never materialized. In fact, I just kept getting an “Oh Sorry” message that the problem was on their end. And live chats with their customer service people only exacerbated the problem as they did the virtual equivalent of a shrug and told me to come back later.

The system couldn’t handle the traffic. Overstock spokesman Scott Blevins noted that “the massive influx of traffic caused congestion on the site,” which lasted for about two hours after the promotion went live. As for why some folks got in and some did not, he just said “that is the nature of limited capacity.”

When I finally got past the “Oh Sorry” message, of course, the item was sold out. Blevins won’t say how many DVDs the site had available during the promotion, but it’s safe to assume that a number of Overstock customers encountered little more than frustration through the exercise. When I asked one of the customer reps for some clarity on how to make the purchase, the response was a repeated “sorry for the inconvenience” message. I quickly gave up. For an extra $10, after all, I could buy the DVD anywhere.

Overstock now has another 11 days in which to alienate even more customers if it doesn’t get its act together on the technical end. I was alerted to the promotion through an e-mail because I had purchased through the site before. But this is the kind of encounter that makes you never want to go back.



News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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