Guest column: Vendors' price quotes mean less on the Web?

It always helps to have a vendor's promises in black and white. But do a vendor's promises mean any less because they appear on a Web page rather than a printed page?

That might be a question we will need to ponder more than once before we have a definitive answer, but one reader's recent experience provides a good starting place.

"I was browsing on the Pricescan Web site, when I saw a Buy.com 'click-thru' ad stating 'BuyComp -- Palm III -- Less than US$250', " wrote the reader, whom we will call Mr Low in honour of his bargain hunting. "I clicked through to Buycomp.com where I found the Palm III, but for $276.95. Using the maths I learned, that's not less than $250."

Mr Low sent an e-mail to Buy.com enquiring where he could find the sub-$250 price, but the response he received from an online customer service representative just said representatives could not provide prices via e-mail.

"I thought they must have just misunderstood, so I responded with more details," Mr Low recounted. "This time, they asked me to call their sales number."

When he did so, the sales representative with whom he spoke cited a disclaimer under the "legal" button on Buy.com's Web site which states in part: "As our prices fluctuate daily, we do not guarantee the price listed on other Web sites or price engines. The price listed on Buy.com's Web site is the only price honoured."

Mr Low tried once again to make it clear it was a click-thru ad for Buy.com and not Pricescan's price engine that showed the low price.

"I explained that I understood how they would not want to be responsible for matching prices listed in a Web price engine that may be dated, but that they should be accountable for matching the price that they list on a graphical banner ad," he wrote. "They refused, saying that no one in that office had the ability to change a price, and also refused to put me in touch with anyone who might be empowered to make such a change."

After I first heard from Mr Low, I went to the Pricescan site myself and saw that the Buy.com ad for a Palm III priced at less than $250 was still there. Interestingly, the Pricescan price engine listed the Buy.com Palm III price as being $276.95, which was still the case when I went to the Buy.com site. And, like Mr Low, when I called Buy.com's customer service to inquire about how I could get the Palm III for less than $250, I was told about the policy of not honouring prices on other sites, ad or no ad.

It was more than a week after Mr Low originally discovered the problem and complained about it that the Palm III price changed on Buy.com (to $259) and the ad on the Pricescan site disappeared. At that point, I put in my official call to Buy.com to find out if this was actually the way they intend to do business.

Brent Rusick, vice president of sales and operations for Buy.com, in Aliso Viejo, California, assured me it was a mistake for the ad to have any price at all.

"We don't normally quote prices in our ads because they can change on a daily basis," Rusick says. "The ad that was provided to Pricescan was not supposed to have a price in it at all, but someone put it in there because it reflected our price for the Palm III at the time."

Because it was an ad rather than the price engine that was wrong, Rusick also said that the policy Mr Low and I both had quoted to us refusing to honour prices on other sites should not have been applied.

"That clause is there because if someone posts a wrong price on a price engine, we aren't going to honour that. But it's not there to protect us from an ad that is wrong -- we are totally responsible for that," Rusick said.

Mr Low and any other customers who called during that period after seeing the ad should have been allowed to buy a Palm III at the advertised price, Rusick said.

Mr Low, who had already purchased his Palm III elsewhere, was somewhat sceptical about Rusick's explanation of what had happened. Although I am certainly willing to believe the price appearing in the ad was just an inadvertent mistake, I'm somewhat sceptical too. Mistakes can and do happen in print all the time, so perhaps we should give Buy.com a break.

I do find it find it disturbing, however, how quick Buy.com's customer service representatives were to hide behind their fine print restrictions and how slow they were to actually rectify the mistake after Mr Low had pointed it out to them.

Unresponsive customer service existed long before electronic commerce, but I would like to think e-commerce will make unresponsive customer service a thing of the past, rather than take it to new levels.

Ed Foster has been writing about technology and consumer issues for nearly 20 years. Send him gripes about computer companies and products at gripe@infoworld.com, or visit his forum at www.infoworld.com

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