ASOS: Fashion Offline

I was really in the mood to do some browsing for summer dresses at ASOS today.This is what I found at their website:

asos: discover fashion online

SORRY WE HAVE HAD TO TAKE THE SITE DOWN DUE TO A FIRE IN OUR MAIN WAREHOUSE.

Fortunately nobody was hurt but we are unable to take any orders until we can ascertain the extent of the damage.

Sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused.

ASOS x

I’ve spent more than 15 years working on the Internet, so I found this to be a very peculiar situation. As an Internet professional, I know that when your website is not available for any reason, the business is often judged by the quality of response preparedness: do you have systems redundancy, such that if your main server hosting location is compromised, another backup machine or location is ready to go online immediately? Especially for web companies like ASOS, every minute the website is not accessible equates directly to lost sales, not to mention the potential of frustrating your consumers.

I found this particular error message to be an interesting question in web marketing. My initial thought when I read the contents of the page was that ASOS was experiencing a normal 500 Internal Server Error of some sort, meaning that the machine or machines that run their website are having any number of common problems. My assumption was that rather than acknowledging this, ASOS decided to use a creative type of spin control to excuse the fact that a web company would not have an immediate fail-safe in place to resolve the problem and get their site back up and running.

I am much more forgiving than the hordes of Internet bloggers who jump all over Google or Facebook anytime their sites go down, I know that stuff just happens sometimes. So as a web professional, despite my surprise that a quality company such as ASOS does not seem to have proper systems redundancy in place – for which their is no excuse – I’ll forgive them and take a look at their summer dress selection at another time.

I was, however, very impressed by what I interpreted to be an imaginative response to an internal failure. What a great excuse: a fire. Who could blame them for not focusing on sales when there is a potentially serious problem going on in their offices that could put the lives of their employees at risk? Kudos to ASOS for making sure they control this situation properly rather than worrying about a few lost transactions on a beautiful summer afternoon (btw, happy Summer Solstice!) when people should be outside instead of on their computers. So as a web marketer, I think they may have actually turned a bad situation into a positive PR moment, something their core customers (who I would expect are not all Internet geeks like me) will probably react to in a more positive than negative manner.

Then I had another thought. What if they really did have a fire in their warehouse? Wow, am I that cynical?

I thought about it: why would a fire in their warehouse affect their website? E-commerce systems are automated and data driven, it’s not like the need to evacuate their personnel would require online sales to stop. Maybe the servers are located in the warehouse? Well, that just brings us back to the original idea that large-scale web enterprises are supposed to have redundancy that usually includes offsite duplication of their systems: the example we always use when explaining the need for such offsite redundancy is “what happens if you have a fire in your office, you don’t want all your data to be store in one place.”

I started reading some of the Twitter commentary under #asosfire:

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@gav_83, @Katie_Duck, and @Kelly_J_Snell all make good points. A warehouse fire would affect the company’s ability to fulfill orders, not just in a timely manner but perhaps at all. Even though their inventory data is automated in systems that should have redundancy, it makes perfect sense that in the aftermath of a warehouse fire that could cause substantial damage to their stock, the operations team will need time to sort through the damage (of course, only after it’s safe to return to the premises, which can also take quite some time) in order to evaluate the extent it effects their inventory, before executing sales of products that may be damaged or destroyed. As a customer, I would also appreciate their desire to try to fulfill existing orders for people like @Kelly_J_Snell who might be depending on receiving their packages as they originally expected, before they proceed to do any additional business.

That makes much more sense. In fact, I now see an article in the Daily Mirror, “Massive Fire at ASOS warehouse forces fashion retailer to take website offline” that indicates:

No-one was injured in the fire, which was brought under control at around 3am on Saturday morning, but there was substantial damage to stock.

Clearly, ASOS has the web redundancy in place that they could put an informative home page on a working website, and they are updating their followers on social media as information becomes available. Oh, cynical web marketer in me. I am glad that at least I have enough awareness to reconsider the situation and I’ll just say that I hope everyone and everything at ASOS is OK and your damage is minimal. This customer will definitely be back.

Oh, and while we are on the subject, could I ask you to open an ASOS Switzerland website so I can stop paying import duties every time I order from the UK or France? But really now, don’t let this be an immediate concern.

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