Pricing Glitch Yields Brief Bargains at Staples

Web site typo results in $39.98 loss per item

A pricing glitch on Staples.com over the President's Day weekend allowed an unknown number of lucky bargain hunters to get more than they bargained for—$40 attache cases that were being sold for just one penny apiece. At that price, some shoppers bought 50 or more cases—some to sell for profit on eBay, others to give as gifts.

Tom Nutile, a spokesman for Framingham, Mass.-based Staples.com, confirmed the pricing mistake and blamed human error.

"Because of a typographical error on Staples.com, a number of customers received an attache case for a penny that [was] supposed to sell for $39.99," Nutile said. "We posted the incorrect price late Saturday [Feb. 17] and discovered it on Sunday.

"A number of orders went through and were delivered," he said. "But we stopped a number of orders and alerted those customers by e-mail that we wouldn't deliver their order and they wouldn't be charged for them."

He declined to say how many attache cases were sold at a penny apiece or how much the mistake would cost the company.

Bargain Spreads Fast

Word of the glitch spread like wildfire on Web sites such as FatWallet.com, a Monroe, Wis.-based site that alerts consumers to discounts at various online stores and provides a forum for consumers to share information.

Buyers bragged online about their good fortune; some said they didn't even have to pay for shipping, and others noted that cases had been put up for sale on eBay Inc.'s auction site.

"I just got my order of 15, total was $8.11 including shipping and handling and tax," one unidentified shopper wrote online. "That makes each bag 54 cents. The bags are essentially junk, but for 54 cents you can't complain."

David Cooperstein, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said Staples.com wasn't legally obligated to honor an incorrect price.

"It would be more of a moral obligation, not a legal one," he said. "And the fact that they don't honor the prices creates a lot of bad publicity."

Staples.com should have systems in place to correct such errors before consumers see them, said Cooperstein.

"Incorrect prices are common occurrences . . . because companies don't have content management systems in place to catch any errors before they're posted," he said.

Staples.com isn't alone. United Air Lines Inc. in Chicago said last week that it would honor dirt-cheap international fares—$24.98 from San Francisco to Paris—incorrectly posted on its Web site last month. The reason: It wanted to keep customers happy.

Online Oopsies

Recent pricing mistakes and how companies responded:

February

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A typo lets shoppers purchase a $39.99 attaché case for 1 cent at Staples.com; the retailer cancels orders as soon as it discovers the error.

January

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A computer glitch at the United Air Lines Web site lets travelers purchase cheap tickets for international flights—for example, $24.98 from San Francisco to Paris; the airline ultimately decides to honor the low fares.

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A computer glitch lets people use unauthorized coupons at Macys.com; the company refuses to honor the coupons.

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