The virtual doorbuster – Taking a Play Book from the Retailers

By David Strom – It is that time of year again, time when we pack our families in the car and try to experience that unique American experience of togetherness, where we can all share the common things that made us thankful for being part of such a great nation. A time to celebrate our freedoms as a people. A time of toleration and joy, as we remember others who are less fortunate.
You might think that I am talking about stuffing one’s faces full of turkey products tomorrow. And while Thanksgiving is notable, it is the day after when we really get started in the holiday spirit. Commonly known as Black Friday, this is the first major mall experience of the holiday season and what really brings many Americans together. A time of tolerance, when searching for a parking spot dwarfs the time spend actually in the mall itself. A time when waiting in line in front of a store before it opens at some unholy hour is considered normal, and expected. A time when grown men and women are reduced to comic book versions of themselves, fighting each other over the sighting of a rare toy or other gift item.
But this year the shopping season started early, with the twin delivery of new gaming consoles by Sony and Nintendo last week. There were reports of drive-by violence as would-be shoppers waiting in line late in the evenings, and that was before anyone actually got inside the stores to fight over who got the goods. Regrettable as these incidents were, I find something else that is noteworthy and what has motivated me to write this missive.
It is called the doorbuster, meaning that a retailer puts a popular item up for sale on Friday but at a heavy discount, knowing that once the shopper is inside the store they will buy other stuff that isn’t at a discount and will cover their losses. Typically, there are limited quantities of the doorbuster, meaning that you have to be one of the first shoppers in the store to grab the item. Thus the feeding frenzy begins, and why people are out at the malls at 6 am.
Well, what got me interested is what is called the virtual doorbuster: Amazon offered up the new Nintendo Wii consoles on their site last weekend, but according to the NY Times they were sold out within a matter of seconds. What, they only stocked about, say a dozen of them? What a surprise! And of course, some gamers were pulling all-nighters refreshing their browsers, waiting for the store to begin selling the consoles.
But this is noteworthy, because the demands of a virtual doorbuster item will be tough for Web site operators to program, let alone for the buying public to find anything. The Times article mentions the lack of information that potential buyers had during this promotion – unlike the real doorbuster situation where you can drive by the mall and see the length of the line outside the door and get a feel for whether you will be in the running or not.
Clearly, there is still some programming work to be done here. And a great deal of Web traffic load-balancing too.
What I found impressive about the Sony PS3 midnight madness was how well managed things were – at one SoCal store, the manager had signs saying exactly how many units were available, so you could calculate your chances of getting one pretty accurately. Of course, we are dealing with geeks here, so no surprise.
Last month, when our local baseball team won the World Series (I think they are named after some local bird), they put on a free victory celebration down at the new stadium (named after some local bigwig family). All the tickets were gone within a few minutes, and again you had some minimal feedback that you were in the “waiting room” but no idea of how many people were in the room with you. And no, I didn’t get any tickets. My sister had a similar experience trying to get free circus tickets through her company’s intranet, and she wasn’t successful either. Clearly, this is a going trend.
So are we are now seeing an evolution of ecommerce that will benefit the ultra-twitchy types that can spend all night refreshing their browser screens? Will others attempt the virtual doorbuster with similar results? We’ll see. In the meantime, you can always get in your car on Friday and head for the mall at 6am, at least you will know where you stand.
In line.