Australia’s ongoing online retail fiasco

tim burrowes landscapeThe continuing inability of Myer and David Jones to deliver customers a decent online brand experience disqualifies them from complaining about digital competitors eating their lunch, argues Tim Burrowes

All credit to Myer. It’s not many retailers who can make a Boxing Day sale last for three weeks.

But thanks to comments from unhappy customers on the company’s Facebook page, it is possible to monitor in real time the continuing erosion of brand value.

I must declare an interest here. I am myself an amused and bemused consumer of that online experience. Not that Myer’s main rival David Jones has done much better, but more on that later.

Being something of a misanthrope when it comes to bricks and mortar retail sales, I actually decided to give the stores’ online sales a shot.

Myer apologyAs it will have been hard to miss, Myer’s site crashed within hours of its Christmas night launch and remained offline for the next eight days.

In a world where Google being down for eight seconds would be remarked upon, Australia’s biggest retail brand was down for eight days.

myer technical issuesBut most curious was how unconcerned Myer boss Bernie Brookes seemed.

The nice folk at partner IBM were hard at work fixing it, he told the market.

And online was, he reassured his investors, only responsible for about one per cent of the company’s revenues. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you wonder whether the fact that it’s only at one per cent is because the store hasn’t been doing enough to catch up with its competitors.

Still, when the Myer site came back, and lured by the offer of free delivery, I gave it a shot.

At first, I couldn’t make the site function on my browser (a recent version of Google Chrome) at all. Oddly, switching to incognito mode, made it work, after a fashion.

But it was s-l-o-w. I had to be very patient, and very focused on only buying exactly what I wanted. Even staying focused, it took more than an hour to buy my items. For instance, you actually had to go through the whole process of selecting an item, a size and a colour before it would then tell you there were none on sale.

But I was certainly not going to browse for some more impulse buys. Dollars I might have spent were lost.

myer facebook slow siteAfter the Myer site successfully took my payment of nearly a grand (I can only face sales shopping once a year), I felt blessed. A common theme on the Myer Facebook page was people complaining that after they had been through the entire process, their order had been lost and they’d had to go back to the beginning, or give up. And that was if they had got it to work at all.

Thus encouraged, I decided to see if I could pick up a few frivolous items from competitor David Jones, which was capitalising on Myer’s misery by offering free delivery.

This was despite a near-astonishing piece of brand destruction I’d witnessed outside David Jones’ Sydney store on Christmas Eve.

As many will know, the store has a tradition of giving its windows over to Christmas displays, featuring puppets, animatronics and music. It’s a genuine attraction and draws crowds.

I found myself outside the store after it closed on Christmas Eve. It was perfectly placed to be part of Christmas spirit, as people headed across Hyde Park to look at the amazing projection mapping onto St Mary’s Cathedral.

There were crowds at the David Jones display windows. But in one of the best metaphors I’ve witnessed for the commercialisation of Christmas, the customers were being elbowed aside by contractors who were covering it up by pasting signage for the company’s post-Christmas sale over the whole window.

The metaphor got better – one of the sign guys brusquely told a young girl who was trying to peep through before it was covered up “Get out of the way.” You can see the back of her head in the first picture. There was no please or thank you. I actually asked the person I was standing with, if I’d heard correctly. The magic of Christmas it was not.

David Jones Christmas display... Going....

David Jones’ Christmas display… Going….

David Jones Christmas display... going...

David Jones’ Christmas display… going…

David Jones' Christmas display... gone

David Jones’ Christmas display… gone

The next morning, driving past in a taxi, I noticed the poster appeared to have been torn down and the display was visible again. I’ve no idea whether this was action by a Christmas vigilante or if the store had thought better of it.

Still, free shipping is free shipping. And David Jones’ site was faster than Myer’s and a reasonably intuitive experience. The ease of browsing meant that in about a quarter of the time I spent a further 600 bucks I hadn’t planned to

I then settled back to wait for my goods from Myer and David Jones to arrive.

Remember that scene in Seinfeld when he turns up at the car hire place and although they’ve taken his booking, they don’t have the car?

It turns out, this is a similar experience online to shopping with the big two retailers.

Three days later, a package arrived from Myer. It was smaller than expected. But then it only contained one item.

A couple of days after that, another item arrived. A few days after that another. And then things went quiet until yesterday, when a fourth package arrived. Of most of it though, there’s no sign a fortnight on.

It seems that as well as the website not being fit for purpose, neither is Myer’s fulfilment operation.

The Everything Store coverBy an amusing juxtaposition, I’m currently reading The Everything Store, the excellently written tale of the early days of Amazon. Back in 1995 or so, as Amazon began to take off, every manager from CEO Jeff Bezos downwards would spend the evening helping out in the warehouse to make sure the company stayed on top of its orders. My guess is that over at Myer Bernie Brookes has not been rolling up his sleeves to get the orders out of the warehouse.

I’m clearly not alone – otherwise writing this post would be too self-indulgent. From the complaints about the uselessness of the site a couple of weeks ago, Myer’s Facebook page is now covered with complaints from people in my boat, wondering whether they’ll get the goods they’ve paid for.

All of them likely to be former customers.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.28.43 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.28.31 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.27.50 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.27.32 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.27.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.26.40 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.26.29 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.25.32 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.25.17 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.24.00 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.23.45 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.23.18 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 12.22.47 PM

To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, they know how to take the order, but they don’t know how to deliver the order.

Meanwhile, thus far there’s been no sign of any of my stuff from David Jones either, so I gave them a ring this morning. When they eventually answered, they explained that just because they’ve took my money, it didn’t mean the items were in stock. They’re waiting for some of the goods to come in from the manufacturer. And they won’t send anything out, until the whole order is complete.

It’s not like walking into a sale and buying what you see in the shop. Or like ordering from Amazon, come to that, which generally takes three or four days to send the order from the US or UK.

But the weird thing is that neither brand seems overly bothered by the online disruption that is already destroying their business models, and the need to compete on that playing field.

In recent years, I’ve watched from afar as a couple of technology debacles humiliated brands, and they seemed to take it a bit more seriously.

When British Airways move into Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 proved to be a mess, the person responsible got fired.

When the BBC’s expensive digitisation project had to be axed, the chief technology officer was suspended.

Meanwhile, here The Australian reported: “Brookes has indicated the company will not be seeking a scapegoat for the glitch — something that undoubtedly will prompt sighs of relief from [head of IT Anthony] Coelho, who joined Myer a year ago from Apple, head of online sales John Joyce and website manager Richard Harrison.” Lucky them.

Yet having a retail website that’s fit for purpose isn’t beyond any big brand any more. The technical side of things – and just why this is such a debacle in 2013/14 – has been well covered elsewhere – including this excellent piece on Delimiter which makes the case well that the situation amounts to incompetency.

It’s also a trend to look out for. Increasingly, marketers are going to find themselves in the hands of the chief technology officer. Let’s hope the when it comes down to it, CMO can rely on the CTO.

Customers only tend to try a brand experience once. Given the expectation of having to wait a couple of weeks or more, would you use a site twice?

What an embarrassing mess.

January 15 update: A few hours after this item was published I had a call from David Jones customer services saying that they’d noticed I’d been waiting a long time for my order and would like to offer me a 10 per cent discount.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella


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