These days, shoppers expect retailers' websites to be fast and reliable. But in recent months, Target.com has not consistently lived up to that expectation.
In the run-up to this holiday shopping season, Target has had several outages that shut down its website that, in some cases, lasted for hours. The retailer has been hustling to prepare the site to withstand the surge of post-Thanksgiving traffic that's likely to peak next Monday, known as CyberMonday.
Website crashes have been a big embarrassment to the company. During a recent conference call with investors, Target CEO Greg Steinhafel vowed the website will be fixed.
"We know we're not yet providing a consistent experience online, and we won't stop until these issues are resolved."
The website crashed most visibly in September, when Target first offered clothing by Italian designer Missoni. Kathryn Tesija, Target's vice president for merchandising, said the retailer's website simply wasn't ready for the unprecedented onslaught.
"Missoni demand created online traffic that outpaced any Black Friday or Cyber Monday in our history, putting a great deal of stress on our newly launched online platform."
But Target.com crashed on other occasions when there were no obvious reasons like the Missoni rush. The company said it has been moving quickly to make improvements.
The outages follow Target's decision to make change to its web operations.
For about a decade, Amazon.com handled Target's website and online sales. But about two years ago, Target decided to bring management and operation of the site in-house.
Analysts say Target wanted more control over its e-commerce site, more bells and whistles than Amazon could deliver. Industry watchers also speculate that Target didn't want to share online profits or customer information with the nation's biggest online retailer.
Advertising Age reported Target's website has been plagued by friction between marketing and technology teams. Target has not commented on the matter. In October, Steve Eastman, the president of Target.com left after a website crash the same day. Target insists his departure was unrelated to the performance of its online business.
Eastman's departure meant building from ground up an operation that can handle simultaneously hundreds of thousands of customers.
"The big ones definitely need to be looking at a quarter-million easily," said Dave Karow, a product manager at California-based Keynote Systems, which monitors the performance of company websites.
He said retail websites should serve pages in two seconds or quicker and withstand traffic surges brought on by one-hour sale, for example.
"You might have five, 10, 50 times your normal volume," said Karow.
At minimum, a website has to perform flawlessly at least 99.5 percent of the time, Karow said.
With increasing numbers of people who use smartphones and tablet computers to access the web, Karow said it is critical for retailers to have websites well-tuned for mobile devices.
"You've got to be easy to use and it's got to be fast," Karow said. "And one of the challenges of fast is you have to figure out how to send less information to that mobile device, and yet still have it be compelling."
On the days Target.com fell short of 99.5 percent flawless, the embarrassment may have been worse than the financial damage. "(Target) don't really derive much of their sales from online sales. I think 2 percent of their sales come from online," said Michael Keara, a retail analyst with Morningstar.
But many consumers do research potential purchases online, looking for bargains even as they're out shopping. So Target's website can provide a boost to in-store sales.
In any case, Keara doesn't doubt Target will get its website running smoothly.
"Target is a multi-billion dollar retailer and they should be able to operate a website. It's not rocket science anymore," Keara said. "I don't understand what the reasons are for it, but I'm sure the problems will be rectified pretty soon."
If the website's traffic is in line with last year, Target.com will see nearly 40 million unique visitors both this month and next, according to comScore, which tracks retail website visits.
Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Target's website was down on Thanksgiving Day. The current version is correct.