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Today's E-Commerce Adventure: Buying Nats Home-Opener Tickets

It took little more than half an hour for the Washington Nationals' home opener to sell out this morning, according to the team's online ticket store. But if you were trying in vain to batter your way through a series of error messages and please-wait prompts to make a purchase, those 30-odd minutes might have felt like much longer.

Click here to see a larger version.

The team's Web vendor,, crumpled under the crush of Nats fans anxious to be the first to experience a ballpark with such newfangled conveniences as cupholders, views of the city from the seats and half-smokes from Ben's Chili Bowl.

I sat through this with my wife and our friends David and Christine, each of us clicking away on our own computers to see who might get through first. It was an ugly thing to watch: Clicking the yellow "T" icon next to the March 30 game led to a "Virtual Waiting Room" page, which kept reloading every 15 seconds until the server might grant you access to the page on which you'd select your tickets. I got that far once--but after selecting a section, I ran into this error message:

We're sorry, we were unable to process your request due to high transaction volumes. Please try to submit your request again.

After three go-rounds with that, I was booted back to the waiting-room page, at which I was greeted with this unintentionally hilarious alert:

We're sorry, we are experiencing technical difficulties.

We are unable to determine which MLB team's home schedule you are requesting.

Please hit back and try again. If you continue to receive this error, please contact Customer Service.

At one level, I should have seen this coming. This kind of overload happens often enough that people have coined verbs to describe it--"Slashdotted," "Dugg"--from the news hubs that regularly send a flood of new users to an unsuspecting site.

But the team's front office and should have seen this coming too. Season-ticket holders could only buy a subset of their seats in advance, and the box offices at RFK and Nationals Park were both closed. The toll-free number, unsurprisingly, only yielded busy signals this morning (giving me flashbacks to my desperate attempts to buy concerts tickets in high school, when the Web hadn't been invented yet). So of course people would jump on the Web site instead.

It's not that a more responsive online store would have left fewer fans disappointed--but there would have been less frustration overall if people trying to give the team their money weren't repeatedly hit with vague error messages.

Fortunately, our strategy of splitting our efforts paid off in the end. Christine was able to snag four tickets near the visitors bullpen, which should give us a fine view of Nats Park and a chance to heckle the Braves' relief pitchers if we yell loud enough. I feel extremely lucky about that... which is why Christine will not be paying for any beers at the game.

If you tried to purchase Nats tickets online this morning, how did things work out for you? What's your usual strategy in situations like this? Have you seen any ticket vendors that actually cope with this kind of high demand?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 4, 2008; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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