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For Online Shoppers, Some Battles Not Worth Fighting

By Jon Weisman E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Jun 8, 2001 4:44 PM PT

Can an e-tailer make a simple mistake without being punished? Are e-tailers human enough to err, and can customers be divine enough to forgive?

For Online Shoppers, Some Battles Not Worth Fighting

Here's the scenario. You come across a DVD player selling on a Web site for US$3.99. That's right. Just 399 pennies from your jar -- the pennies you'd dump at the bank if you could just take the time to stuff them in those infernal rolls.

You submit your credit-card information, you get confirmation, you wallow in elation.

A day later, the e-tailer informs you of what you surely knew was true all along. An operations glitch dropped the decimal point in the wrong spot. That DVD player costs $399, not $3.99.

The e-tailer would like to cancel the order. Well, let's be real. The e-tailer simply is canceling the order -- with a sincere apology for the inconvenience and the hope that everyone can still be friends.

Plenty of times, however, the buyer-seller friendship ends there. It's worth noting, because pricing glitches will happen from time to time in the future.

Making Amends

In my mind, the e-tailer's response seems just. Another part of life in the big Internet city. When the price of an item is obviously a mistake, and the mistake is caught, reasonable people should agree to rectify it.

If an e-tailer wants to top off its apology with some kind of gesture, like a coupon, terrific. In any case, the customer certainly can choose not to buy the item at the correct price.

But more often than not, when a pricing glitch like this happens on the Web, all I hear is indignation from customers who feel that they've been lied to, and analysts calling the situation a public relations fiasco for the e-tailer.

Moral Morale

Look, everyone's got their own set of ethics. And if yours are like mine, not only are they occasionally colored with some gray, but that gray may be shaded depending on which side of the bed you woke up on.

Salesperson Joe undercharges me $10 for a pair of shoes. Most of the time, I'll bring it to Joe's attention. Sometimes, if I'm feeling that life has been particularly unfair lately, I'll keep Joe in the dark. (If I had shopped at CyberRebate, I might feel like Joe's undercharge was just the beginning of some overdue karmic payback).

On the other hand, if I realize while walking out of another store that I accidentally gave Storeclerk Samantha a $10 bill instead of $1 for a pack of gum, you can be sure that I'll go back inside and try to get my money back.

If Samantha doesn't believe me, and I can't make my case that I made a mistake, that's one thing. But if Samantha knows it was an error, and then decides to let me suffer anyway -- now there's a public relations disaster as far as I'm concerned.

One-Way Street

But here's the interesting twist. E-tailers can suffer public relations imbroglios. Shoppers can't.

Every day, people decide never to shop again at a particular e-tailer because they've been burned. Heck, every day, people decide never to shop again on the Internet itself because their skin's been smoked.

But no e-tailer ever gets to say, "That's it. I've had enough with Shoppers. From now on, I'm only selling my product to Surfers. Yeah, people who don't spend -- they won't give me any guff."

Although the customer-retailer relationship is often a David vs. Goliath one, David definitely has a few pebbles for his slingshot. If he doesn't like the sweater he ordered -- ping -- he can return it. If a customer decides that the sweater was too expensive -- smack -- he can return it. That's the way it should be.

But even David can slingshot too far.

Peace and Prosperity

I want to be perfectly clear. I have no ties, emotional or otherwise, with any e-tailer. I am a buyer, not a seller. I think that things have gone wrong with purchases I've made, or services I've requested, way too many times, and certainly have not always been resolved to my satisfaction. Often, I've been punished, pummeled and pulverized with poor customer service to boot.

So here's why this issue is important. If shoppers complain about having their $3.99 DVD player taken away from them, which they know they should never have had in the first place, then they have no credibility at all. And if customers are going to win any battles with retailers, they need to have credibility.

So let's make a deal, fellow consumer. The next time you order a $3.99 DVD player, it's yours when it arrives and the credit-card bill is processed. But if the mistake is found out first, let's put the slingshot down, shake hands and agree to move on.

What do you think? Let's talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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