SEATTLE - Following a flood of traffic that briefly choked its Web site and complaints from customers, Amazon.com has tweaked a holiday promotion to discourage frenzied shoppers from rushing for the front of the virtual sales line.
Instead of jostling for one of four discounted items the moment they go on sale, shoppers will now have to count on randomly receiving a voucher that entitles them to buy a product they chose in an online poll.
The company and an independent analyst said the change should be a fair way of handling traffic for the promotion, which bogged down Amazon's site during Thanksgiving and generated bitter complaints from shoppers.
"We certainly experiment with things, and when we get feedback from customers and are able to make an experience that we think is better, we certainly try to do that," Amazon spokesman Craig Berman said Tuesday.
The change also offers an interesting lesson in instant customer research, said Patti Freeman Evans, a senior analyst with JupiterResearch in New York.
"You have a microcosm of a research group right there for Amazon, and even anybody who wants to read it because it's public," Evans said. "Think of how much you could learn just from the feedback, or how many people voted for what."
Amazon launched the "Customers Vote" promotion at the end of November, giving shoppers a chance to choose their favorite of four products. The winner in the first week was a Microsoft Corp. Xbox 360 video game console for about $100 - two-thirds off the regular retail price.
The Seattle-based online retailer also offered discounts on the other competing products and put all four up for sale, opening the gates at 11 a.m. local time Thanksgiving Day.
Shoppers snapped up the 1,000 available Xboxes in less than 30 seconds, with a mountain bike, Barbie doll and Amazon Prime membership with gift certificate also selling out in about 15 minutes. But disgruntled customers who had problems accessing the Web site during the rush complained in the site's comment threads.
The problem, Evans said, was that unlike an early morning lineup outside the local retail store, online consumers had no idea of their position among the other first-come, first-served shoppers.
And while chasing an elusive bargain is part of the thrill, consumers will get upset if they think the rules are unclear or unfair, she said.
"If you don't tell customers what's going on, or you waffle or you change midway, then that gets to be a little dicey for consumers," Evans said.
Amazon responded by changing the rules. It extended the voting period for the second round, and also warned that Amazon would block computers attempting to repeatedly reload the page.
For this week's voting, the company announced a detailed voucher system aimed at stemming "the incredible volume of traffic" for its promotion.
Shoppers will be able to purchase the products only if they vote in the poll and are later selected randomly to receive a "claim code," good for 24 hours. Customers also must have a credit card linked to their account.
Shoppers have thanked Amazon for the changes, Berman said, and have also continued posting comments to the site in attempts to lobby for their favorite products.
On the Web
Amazon Customers Vote: promotions.amazon.com/gp/holiday/cv/homepage