The glitch that almost stole Christmas hits Toysrus is tripling the number of servers that process orders after a 1,000 per cent increase in Web site traffic that began Nov. 7 swamped the system and turned away throngs of customers.

The spike was the result of a weekend marketing blitz. More than 62 million customers were offered free shipping through November for on-line purchases, US$10 off orders from first-time on-line customers and a free toy for orders of more than US$100.

“We are astounded at the multiple increase in orders,” said John Barbour, CEO of, a unit of Paramus, N.J.-based Toys R Us Inc.

Observers said the company shouldn’t have been surprised.

On-line shopping is expected to double this holiday season, from US$11.5 billion last year to US$24.2 billion this year, according to The Yankee Group in Boston – and some say that’s a conservative estimate. Retailers eager to grab a chunk of the market are offering free shipping, free gifts and discounts to lure customers.

Despite planning and testing before big on-line events, Web site managers are being blind-sided by traffic beyond their wildest expectations.

Music retailing site Virgin Megastore Online was overwhelmed for several days after a surge of shoppers rushed to take advantage of a 50 per cent-off Labor Day sale. Traffic was 40 times the normal level.

Encyclopedia publisher Inc. offered its content free in October after years of charging a US$5 monthly fee. The site faltered on its first day when traffic reached 20 times normal capacity. Visitors were turned away for more than a week.

What can on-line retailers do to prepare for the holiday rush? Observers have urged companies to throw out brick-and-mortar marketing models and test their whole infrastructure, not just the front end.

When a brick-and-mortar store sends out a promotional flyer, retail models predict how much traffic is likely to result. But on-line, “they don’t realize there’s so few barriers to people clicking to a site,” said Alan Wexelblat, information architect at Mainspring Communications Inc., an e-commerce consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. Foot traffic may build over a week’s time in dozens of stores, but millions of on-line shoppers can hit one Web site in a day, he said.

“I would never recommend that someone send out 62 million new ads at one time to test their sites. Do a million at a time and build awareness,” said Maureen Stancik, project manager for on-line retail and distribution at Mainspring.

Once the groundwork is laid for an on-line event, both front-end and back-end systems must be tested. officials said the company quadrupled its servers in anticipation of a spike in traffic, yet was still overwhelmed by demand.

“You don’t just multiply your servers by 10 and expect it to deal with the traffic,” Stancik said. When site visitors go beyond the home page and browse dozens of items and make multiple transactions, back-end processing is increased 100 times, she said.

Servers may get a customer onto the site, but processing the order depends on the sophistication of the back-end database. Older systems may run slowly, Stancik said.

Also, the network system that links servers and the database needs to be optimized to prevent bottlenecks, she said. Companies should also consider using a distributed server farm during peak times., an on-line gift merchant in Waltham, Mass., launched its first nationwide TV advertising campaign Nov. 7 and was prepared for a spike in demand, said Ken Surdan, vice-president of technology and systems development. As a result of the ads, “we’ve seen a 300 per cent increase” in traffic, Surdan said, with “no issues whatsoever.”

As insurance, ramped up nine new Web servers – dual-CPU Compaq Computer Corp. 1850Rs – just before the ads hit TV. The company also “double- and triple-checked” with its application service provider, Andover, Mass.-based NaviSite Inc., to ensure that’s outsourced network infrastructure was ready.

Customers will be less forgiving of faulty sites this holiday season, noted Elaine Rubin, chairman of, an Internet retail association in Silver Spring, Md. “They have so many options. You’re a click away from another 15 sites that do the same thing,” she said.

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