Year in Review: When Anthropologie’s technology fails us

If 2010 was the year Anthropologie exploded in my closet, 2011 was the year I started exploring other brands again. It’s painful to say that since Anthropologie is my favorite store but it’s true. Over the course of this week we’ll review the year that was for Anthro and look ahead to 2012.

There is an incredible shift happening in the commerce landscape. While sales at many brick and mortar stores decline, online sales surge. On Christmas Day alone online shopping was up over 16%, with mobile purchases up over 170%. Online-only stores are using your local businesses and chains as their test drive centers. People are using their smartphones and tablets to purchase items at triple-digit growth rates. Consumers are shopping online more and more with the expectation of fast, effortless on-demand browsing and purchasing.

In the apparel world, many stores seem unprepared for this dramatic digital onslaught. In 2008 and 2009 J.Crew’s website suffered constant downtime, be it application unavailability or the dreaded 500-series internal server error page. They seemed to have mostly solved their issues while other brands have suffered since. Earlier this year the Ann Taylor family of stores ran a special promotion for just a few hours on their website. They were so unprepared for the traffic surge that their websites crashed.

If it’s not a problem with scalability (perhaps some autoscaling is in order, CTOs?) or server load then inventory seems to be the issue. Rumor has it that faced with stock issues in their warehouse, Barney’s scuttled to the store racks to fulfill some online Christmas orders. Best Buy cancelled some eagerly-awaited Black Friday-placed orders just 10 days before Christmas.   

And then there’s Anthropologie. Since it’s the shopping website I visit most often the problems probably seem amplified to me. We all know the many fun games Anthropologie likes to play on its website, from product page redirects to the endless popback items that aren’t actually in stock. While the site has had its quirks for as long as I can remember, these small failings become epicenters of frustration when you repeatedly examine them. Anthro’s certainly not alone in these usability issues but since this is an Anthro-centric site they get the star treatment. I’m sure they’re thrilled!

It’s in stock. It’s not in stock. It’s back in stock?!?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You order an item from Anthropologie’s website. There seems to be plenty of the item in stock, yet a few days later your item is cancelled. Alright, that sucks but it’s not the worst thing in the world. Then while surfing Anthropologie’s website to soothe your disappointment you notice the item that you just got a cancellation notification for is mysteriously available. So you order it again! And a few days later you once again get a cancellation notice. What gives?

The underlying issue here comes from inventory reconciliation. I’m going to dive into the business end a bit here: Anthropologie places orders for each of its items through a Purchase Order. When the items arrive at the warehouses, the teams receive a certain number of the item, let’s say 1000 just for kicks. So the warehouse team reports receiving 1000 of an item and now the website’s database has 1000 of the item available to purchase.

More likely than not a few of those items get lost along the way. Maybe 5 fall out of the bin in the warehouse. Maybe 10 get lost. Maybe 3 rip or break. Maybe 2 get stolen. This isn’t really a problem when there’s 500, or 250 or even 100 of an item left to buy. But when you get down to that last 10 it becomes a big issue. The website doesn’t know that Anthropologie really only has 997 of an item when there were originally 1000. So I place an order for my ring as the 998th order, which gets sent to the warehouse picklist and the warehouse team cancels my order because they can’t find stock. The warehouse team might not be able to edit the inventory for the website manually though, so when my order is cancelled the website still thinks it has 2 of the ring available. So it shows the item as a popback that’s back in stock. Then someone tries to order the ring and the same thing happens to them until someone on Anthro’s team can finally tell the website database that no, actually we only had 997 of the ring so it’s out of stock for good. Until that fix is made these ghost popbacks keep happening — an item appears in-stock but there’s nothing in the warehouse to fulfill the order with.

Another issue that happens is that too many people order an item at the same time. This is primarily the case on sale mornings or during special promotions, like the 50% off sale Anthropologie had on Black Friday. The ERP (that’s the system companies like Anthropologie use to keep track of inventory, among many other things) could be the fastest application known to man, but unless there’s some kind of stock-wait programmed into the website, 100 people could easily order an item within milliseconds of each other. Unlike at a physical store where you can see when the shelf is empty, it takes even the fastest database milliseconds (or more) to catch up with the order requests. So you and I and 98 of our friends might all want the same item, in the same size, and we might all get an order confirmation at 9:38 AM, but if there’s only 10 of that item in stock only 10 of us are gonna get it. The other 88 of us are going to be pissed off in a few days when the cancellation notice arrives.

If I’m Anthropologie (or Ann Taylor, or any of the other stores that have experienced this purchase flood), my first call would be to Gilt, or RueLaLa, or Hautelook, or one of the flash sale sites. I want to chat with their CTO and development team about how they manage inventory during the rush at 11 AM or Noon or whatever time it may be. I want my team to make sure the marketing is super clear that there are only limited quantities of these sale items available and once they’re gone, they’re gone. I try to take a zen attitude with my orders — especially with popbacks. Low inventory is very hard to manage. But that can’t last forever. Because while a 25% off coupon is a nice consolation for a cancelled order at some point my patience will run out.


It’s on sale…or is it?
I enjoy playing the Sale Guessing Game with the community on Monday nights! Come Tuesday morning however my patience wears a little thinner. So come the overnight when sale markdowns begin to show few things annoy me more than having to click through each and every product to verify my sale list. Sometimes items will show up on sale overnight, only to be back up to full price come 9 AM ET. Other times they won’t show as being on sale until that time. And other times…you get the picture.

In Anthropologie’s defense they’d probably say it’s best to just wait until 9 AM ET to see what’s on sale, when items officially move into the website sale section. But we all know here that our favorite item might already be gone by that time. The waiting game is one we don’t want to play.

I don’t think Anthropologie has any nefarious intentions on Monday overnights — I think they’re legitmately having issues getting all the sale items to show at the same time. I can’t decide if it’s website glitches or something else coding-related that are causing the irregular markdown reveals we see. Whatever it is, it’s annoying beyond words and I hope Anthropologie fixes the problem quickly in 2012.

You get free shipping but I don’t. You get the emails but I don’t.
This isn’t a coding glitch — it’s a purposeful marketing and I detest it. Loathe it! Wish it would die a slow, painful death. What is it? Multivariate testing. A marketing ploy designed to see what works and what doesn’t to draw a sale out of the customer. Sometimes multivariate testing can be good — let’s see what happens if I put this button here, make that box blue or red, etc. But when the tests revolve around some customers getting promotions while others don’t it makes me seethe.

I had a boss awhile ago who used to say: “All customers are equal. But some customers are more equal than others.” Meaning that while the general customer base should always feel special, the VIP customers are the ones really receiving that VIP treatment. And while I get that in the shopping world those that spend more will always get behind the velvet rope something so obvious as a promotion that works for thousands of customers but not others is going to piss people off. Earlier this year Anthropologie started experimenting with free shipping promotions. Some people got free shipping on all orders. Others on orders over $150 or $200. Still others until a certain date. And some people got nothing at all. (Ah, the control group.)

Worse, the company started splitting email blasts into groups. Anthro members get some emails and not others. That new outfit set on the website? Maybe you hear about it via email and I don’t. I get an email about sweaters and you get an email about dresses. I am invited to a store event but you’re not. Etc. You and I both contact customer service and ask to be on every email list. We both continue to get just some of the emails.

The issue here is that up until 2011, Anthropologie has had stellar customer service. Incredible. Heads and tails above most other stores. They successfully spread the perception that each customer was invaluable to the company and they would do whatever it took to keep us satisfied, within reason of course. Now the message is more like, “You’re important to us sometimes, and other times we could care less. You’ll take what we give you and like it!”

What kind of message does Anthropologie think it’s sending by giving some customers information and not others? Or giving some customers discounts and not others? They avoided this game for so long. This year they’ve gone right off the reservation. The only thing these games stir up in me is apathy. I look at my spending at J.Crew — huge in 2007 + 2008, down a bunch in 2009 with the website issues, nearly zero last year and this year with the stupid promotional games. Saks 5th Ave — jerked me around on a PA last month, won’t be getting any of my money for the foreseeable future. Customers hold long grudges. Does Anthropologie want to bet the farm on marketing games? Hopefully not in 2012.

Hey, remember that catalogue from 4 months ago?
This one is more a plea than anything — Anthropologie, please don’t wipe your catalogues from the site after 3 months! You want to cut catalogue circulation but won’t let people access the pretty pictures a quarter from now? What do you have against your own art?

I’m only scratching the surface here…online only items, wishlist limits and frustrating UI design, reviews where I have to re-enter my information every time. Blargh. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. I feel for Anthropologie’s tech team, who I’m sure is just as annoyed as me by some of these issues. Other decisions though leave me wondering if Anthropologie remembers who its customer base is.

What say you community? 

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