the outnet – from sale to fail?
The losers called it "an outrage", "gutting", "an epic fail" "a total con" and "a horror story", the (very few) winners don't care, because they are smug and stroking their Louboutins happily. It's the sale that has divided not just a nation, but the entire fashion world. It is theOutnet's infamous first birthday sale.
TheOutnet was one of the most highly anticipated website launches of last year. The sister site of Net-a-Porter, it is now famous for its "flash sales", where bargain-hunters play a game of fashion "chicken" to snap up bargains that plummet in price as the sale goes on. Chloe bags, YSL tops and McQueen dresses are snapped up faster than you can blink.
So, it was no surprise that theOutnet announced it would be hosting a massive sale-to-end-all-sales "party" to celebrate its first birthday. For one day only, thousands of items would be available to buy for just £1 ($1 in the US) to a select group of invited "VIPs". If customers signed up to the VIP mailing list, they would be given a link to the sale at an undisclosed time on Friday 16th April.
Too good to be true? Sadly, yes. Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign which saw the sale mentioned in the national press, social media sites and various fashion websites, columns and blogs, many thousands of "VIP" shoppers had pre-registered for the sale before the deadline to do so had expired. As a result, when the UK sale opened at 7:24am on Friday 16th April, every UK fashionista worth her salt logged on to the site, causing the website's servers to promptly crash within minutes. The rest of the UK sale can only be described as "carnage", whilst thanks to time zone differences the US sale started at 3:45am and so wasn't quite as manic by all accounts. Many US customers were outraged at this somewhat peculiar timing, but that's another story.
Back in the UK, many customers became confused when they eventually got onto the site to see that not all of the items were in fact in the sale, a fact that had apparently not been made clear beforehand. However, most of the stories from that morning are of increasingly frustrated users who never managed to get onto the site at all, despite trying for "most of Friday morning", as the lucky few inundated the site and made their speedy purchases at the rate of up to nine per second.
Needless to say, it became very obvious that theOutnet had not prepared for the sheer volume of traffic it experienced that day. However, it must have been even less prepared for the outpouring of bile that has since flooded the internet.
Within hours, hundreds of dissatisfied potential customers had banded together in the Facebook group "TheOutnet stole my Friday" whilst as the sale was going on, Twitterers were venting at a rate almost as fast as the purchases. Ladyglamourazzi said: "theOutnet has no excuses for this server failure, they knew exactly how many people would access - they made them sign up". Whilst Shoegalsedgwick tweeted: "the outnet sale was a JOKE! absolute farce, I am furious". And, as the morning rolled on, the scrolling live feed of tweets went on and on in much the same vein. TheOutnet soon realised that the tide of publicity was turning against them and by 6pm on the day of the sale, a statement had appeared on theOutnet's Facebook page:
"Hello everyone, I am Stephanie, Director of theOutnet. I wanted to personally say that we have been listening to all your comments. First and most importantly, I want to say sorry for the frustrating experience that many of you had. You have shown incredible interest in our site today and we do not take that lightly.
"Clearly, while we were prepared for the volume of traffic the sale would deliver, in some markets, the UK mainly, we were overwhelmed by the speed at which you came to the site this morning. This remarkable volume - up to 9 orders a second - led the site to crash for many of you, and I want to say that we are very sorry to all those who didn't get to buy anything at the sale, but delighted for the thousands of lucky ones amongst you that did walk away with a £1/$1 bargain from theOutnet.
"We want to thank all of you for being part of our first year celebrations. With each event we are working hard to fix issues that arise, and want to say that we fully intend to offer you further bargain shopping opportunities in the future. Thank you again, Stephanie".
However, customers were not placated by this and continued to complain. Over 700 people commented on Stephanie's apology on Facebook, with many complaining over what they saw as a blatant data gathering exercise. Stacy Heatherington said: "Classic. They just want email addresses. Plain and simple". Meanwhile, Jo Mcgilp added: "They advertised everywhere, obviously gaining who knows how many more email addresses to their data base but unfortunately their servers did not have the capabilities to cope with such numbers that would visit when the emails were sent out".
The obvious question is this: theOutnet has held many flash sales in the past, quite successfully, so why was this such a PR disaster?
Catherine Pryce at marketing services firm Leapfrogg commented: "Social media done properly can increase brand advocates (fans and followers), sales and brand visibility. However, when a social media campaign backfires it can leave a bitter taste with prospects and customers for a long time after, therefore having a potentially damaging affect on the brand".
On the response to theOutnet's sale, she added: "This smacks of a rather 'gung-ho' attitude to marketing, and social media in particular; an approach which is dangerous to say the least - the frustration that many women have experienced from this will not be easily forgotten.
"Potential sales will be quashed by a bad user experience...it's the same as a bad experience in a shop with sales staff or products. Word of mouth travels fast, especially when it comes to social media".
Summing up the general feeling, Ms Pryce said: "I had not heard of the Outnet before but I certainly think that a lot of people will have heard of it now...unfortunately for all the wrong reasons".
It seems that whilst many women will think kindly on the site for their bargain purchases, many more share her opinion and will consider this a major own-goal for the retailer.