Online retailers hit by pricing glitches

Pricing glitches at and Inc. within the past two weeks left some customers happy but others miffed, as the firms scrambled to recover from discounts unintentionally given to some customers.

Although the problems at Seattle-based Amazon and Framingham, Mass.-based were different in nature, they call into question the ability of online retailers to effectively control the content of their Web sites.

This week, a glitch in Amazon’s computer system lowered prices by 50 per cent or more on some items. The cause is still unclear. In an e-mail to customers, Amazon blamed computer error. In another e-mail, the company said the pricing problems occurred because suppliers raised their prices. In one case, the price of a refrigerator play set was listed as US$2.49, but Amazon later said the correct price was $24.99.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company is too busy to respond to questions about the pricing glitch, though it told some news outlets that the errors were due to a “hiccup” in the system.

In’s case, someone randomly punching numbers into the coupon tab field at its Web site obtained discount coupons intended only for certain customers. That person then posted the coupons on, a site that alerts consumers to discounts at various online stores and provides a forum for consumers to share information, according to Tim Storm, founder of Monroe, Wis.-based FatWallet.

David Cooperstein, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said the pricing errors point to a more widespread problem.

“These [highlight] the problem of content-management and pricing-management systems,” he said. “Companies have to have better workflow management to make sure that the prices that are posted are the right prices before a shopper [sees them] and [that] coupons can’t be introduced” where they shouldn’t be.

Staples spokesman Tom Nutile said that although coupon glitches are rare, they do happen to online, catalog and brick-and-mortar retailers. In the online world, coupons are strings of numbers that a consumer types into an area on a merchant’s Web site. Some can be used multiple times, while others can be used only once.

FatWallet’s Storm said one way online merchants can prevent coupon glitches is to tie the coupon to one person’s account so that only the intended recipient can use it. He also said companies should have a monitoring system in place to alert them to items that are being sold below cost.

Eric Lazarus, president of Lazarus Technology Mentoring Inc. in New York, a firm that helps online companies deal with incorrect pricing and coupon problems, said pricing glitches are often caused by coding errors.

“The best guard against this is to have a code inspection,” he said. “After the programmer thinks he has written the code right, a team of technicians should [review] the code, circle anything that looks suspicious and send it back to the developers.”

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