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End of the Line for Alibris Technical Woes?

After more than two weeks of extensive disruptions, Alibris says that its fulfillment and inventory processes are back in proper working order, and it is scrambling to push out orders that had been delayed and rebuild trust with its network of sellers.

Heather Burns, Alibris’ director of client services, said that the book and media marketplace, a division of Monsoon Commerce, is currently working to pinpoint the precise technical malfunctions that prevented sellers from receiving order notifications and updating inventories, and is planning to upgrade its back-end technology to avoid a recurrence of those problems.

“We had an issue with our database system that manages seller inventory. Now that our systems are stabilized, we are conducting a thorough analysis to determine exactly what happened,” Burns wrote in an email. “Alibris is investing heavily in building better tools for sellers and a stronger infrastructure to make it easier, faster and more lucrative to connect them to customers across the Web.”

Around the middle of last week, Alibris began pushing out orders to sellers, but it wasn’t until the beginning of this week that sellers were once again able to update inventories. In the meantime, of course, the holiday shopping season began in earnest over the Thanksgiving holiday, culminating in the online shopping blitz of Cyber Monday, when ecommerce sales topped $1.7 billion – an all-time record – according to comScore.

The inability to update inventories throughout most of that weekend meant that shoppers might encounter inaccurate information about out-of-stock items and shipping estimates, an issue Burns said is now resolved.

“Our sellers are able to update their inventories. A small number of customer orders have been delayed but that is being resolved quickly,” she said.

Despite Alibris’ assurances, however, it appears that some lingering technical problems persist. One long-time gold seller, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as of Wednesday, inventory that he had uploaded on Monday still had not shown on Alibris or Amazon, one of many online retail sites where Alibris manages sellers’ inventory. Uploads are usually processed within 24 hours, the seller said.

That seller, along with others on a forum thread, complained that Alibris has not been forthright in communicating the extent of the problems over the past couple weeks. To be sure, Burns has been a regular presence on that thread, posting updates and offering sympathies to sellers for the inconvenience. But frustrations have mounted over how long the technical issues have lingered.

“They have never explained exactly what happened,” the seller said. “While they posted updates, once or twice daily, they mainly consisted of “it should be fixed tomorrow,” which became less and less believable as time went by. I would have liked more realistic fix evaluations. If it’s gonna take a week, then tell me.”

Some sellers have been wondering what, if anything, Alibris will offer in recompense for the outage and the disruption it has caused. Asked about Alibris’ plans, Burns would not tip her hand.

“Right now our top priority is to get sellers and their inventory in front of customers. We can’t discuss compensation at this time but sellers are the backbone of our business and we are committed to regaining their trust and helping to build their businesses,” she said.

But Burns has acknowledged that Alibris owes its sellers some kind of compensation for the inconvenience. In a post to the forum earlier this week, Burns confirmed that cancellations caused by the technical problems would not count against sellers’ ratings, and indicated that the company is going to try to make things right.

“We are … assessing the total damage of the outage and coming up with a plan to make amends with you,” she wrote. “The plan will be announced next week.”

Kenneth Corbin on Linkedin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn.