E-retailers roll with Sandy’s punches

October 30, 2012 04:35 PM

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s raging path up the Eastern United States, online retailers in the New York area, including Inc. and, are bouncing back from power and service outages. And for merchants everywhere, the technology vendors powering their databases and e-commerce platforms have been putting their emergency planning and backup systems to use to maintain service levels.

At least one major web retailer that the storm hit head on experienced a serious site outage, according to mobile and web performance management firm Keynote Systems Inc. Inc., headquartered on Long Island, NY, and No. 51 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, began experiencing site outages last night around 11 p.m. Eastern time, Keynote says. The site was unreachable for most of the night, Keynote says, but this morning it appeared to be live again—albeit with an irregular domain name: versus Keynote speculates this could signify a successful contingency plan; a 1-800-Flowers spokeswoman was unable to confirm this. She later said by e-mail, "As a result of Hurricane Sandy, we were impacted due to primary communication access to our primary facility and some of our customers may have been inconvenienced as we migrated to our secondary facility. However, we were able to adjust to a unique weather event to continue to deliver smiles for our customers to the important people in their lives."

No other sites among the 40 e-retailers Keynote monitors appeared to have such prolonged difficulties, the company says, though Victoria’s Secret and had brief periods of downtime overnight, also starting at 11 p.m. Both those sites, however, appeared to be operating normally by 7 a.m., Keynote says. Victoria’s Secret Direct is No. 19 in the Top 500; Target Corp. is No. 23.

E-retailer’s headquarters in the Greenwich Village section of lower Manhattan were without power and closed today, CEO Jason Goldberg wrote on his blog. While the site remained operational, he said the company’s two warehouses, both in New Jersey, were closed by the storm. “As such we are unable to ship packages today,” he wrote. "We hope to have power restored to our warehouse very soon.”

Company employees working remotely continue to post new items to the members-only site, which offers discounted home furnishings. “As I write this 12 Fab team members are huddled around my kitchen table working on our recovery plans and our holiday shops,” Goldberg said in his blog. He said plans to launch its Holiday Shops, featuring gift ideas, Thursday, as scheduled.

Meanwhile jewelry, figurine and gift e-retailer, which is based in Spring Valley, NY, upstate of New York City, and is No. 962 in the Second 500, closed for business on Monday because of safety concerns, according to a banner across the top of its web site yesterday. An automatic e-mail response for customer service inquires explained that the retailer closed its offices and distribution center and would reopen when the hurricane passed.

“We did see a drop in the sales overnight and shipments were delayed for 24 hours,” says Esther Jakubowicz, vice president of Quality Overstock. “Besides the loss of power, we have not experienced any other damages.” This morning, the retailer began using portable generators, she says, and it was running normally by the afternoon.

Site outages can be caused by problems with web servers or data centers, whether run by a retailer or a technology provider. But most web-hosting vendors build systems with servers spread over large geographical areas so that even if one data center goes down, another will be able to pick up the slack while it is fixed, technology vendors say.

“Sandy did knock one of our data centers offline late last night, but we have redundancy built in via three other data centers located in different parts of the country, so when the outage occurred, we switched users to live centers within a few seconds,” says Rick Berman, chief technology officer at MyBuys Inc., whose technology enables web retailers to offer shoppers personalized product recommendations.

E-commerce platform provider GSI Commerce Inc., a unit of eBay Inc., and site search provider SLI Systems, both reported that none of their customers were affected by data center outages during Sandy’s landfall. Thirty-one retailers in the Top 500 report using GSI’s e-commerce platform technology and 36 retailers use SLI for site search.

Nor has Internet content provider Akamai Technologies received reports from any client retailers experiencing web site outages or other problems related to Sandy, says Lelah Manz, chief strategist for commerce. “But in the lead-up to the storm throughout last weekend, there was some concern among our e-commerce customers whose sites are hosted mostly in Ashburn, VA, by Inc.’s EC2 [Elastic Cloud Computing] or by other data centers there,” she says. 

EC2, a web site hosting service operated by Amazon Web Services, experienced problems last week that knocked some retail sites offline for hours. Some merchants were concerned that it or other data centers in Ashburn might experience similar problems because of Sandy, Manz says.

But the several data centers in Ashburn—which Manz says is a center of Internet-hosting providers that serve e-commerce sites and share network connections—appeared to escape any negative impact from the storm.

The storm did knock out several data centers in New York, including ones operated by Internet-hosting services Peer 1, Datagram Inc., Internap, Init7 and NoZone Inc.’s Steadfast Networks. Each of these companies posted online status reports (including some on the Internet information site about how they were working to get their facilities back in full operation, with some down because of flooding that knocked out power generators. Init7 says the damage knocked out the facility’s connection with sister data centers in other parts of the country. Init7 said yesterday it was temporarily disconnected from its data centers in Miami and Los Angeles and unable to route traffic to them, but reported today that it had restored those connections.

Although there are only scattered reports of outages at e-commerce sites, the storm took a number of content sites online, including the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Gawker. Huffington and BuzzFeed were back online earlier today, but Gawker didn’t come back online until just before 3 p.m. Eastern time.

At least one online merchant viewed the storm as an opportunity to provide distraction for those cooped up by the storm raged. San Francisco-based on-demand adult video retailer GameLink today offered a 25% discount to customers stranded at home in the storm, including streamed content.




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