Virtual crowd control

December 14, 2011

Sunday’s HP Touchpad fire sale on eBay proved one thing – you can shout about the Cloud and internet retailing all you want, but if you can’t handle the shopper militia who will besiege your site, you’re in trouble.

News surfaced last week that HP was selling off a final batch of its ill-fated Touchpads on eBay. The heavily-discounted sale was first held in August, and people swamped online and physical stores to buy as many as they could. The brick-and-mortar stores got away with fewer bruises than their online counterparts as websites nearly froze because of demand.

When TechCrunch leaked the announcement of the intended sale – this time only on HP’s eBay store and with payment accepted only via PayPal – I wondered if things might go better.

They didn’t.

When the tablets went on sale, everyone tried to get another shot at buying the tablet that nobody wanted. Two minutes later, eBay crashed, then started crawling back to normal. Nearly all shoppers ran into error messages and “timeouts.” Most didn’t get to buy a TouchPad.

People on Twitter complained of being able to add products to carts, but not being able to pay. “My eBay touchpad experience was not a good one. Orders were reversed. No help, eBay, HP or PayPal” a shopper tweeted.

Some ploughed through and got what has been termed as the tech deal of the decade. One shopper wrote: “Got a 32GB Touchpad – eBay wasn’t bad; a lot of timeouts, but success after 48 minutes.”

The problem, it would seem, lies in the same reason the internet is so powerful – reach. I tried to buy a Touchpad from India and had planned to ship it to a friend in the United States. It would have worked, but for a mistake with the shipping address. The slow internet speeds in India didn’t help.

If a brick-and-mortar store decided to hold an everything-must-go sale, the shoppers, while wild, will still be local and therefore manageable. The store won’t look like the Mongol hordes marched through it.

There is no doubt that online retailers will, if not already, prepare for days like these to occur more often. Their real-world cousins are better versed with crowd control. How the virtual bouncers will operate is likely to play a part in the store’s reputation in the long run.

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