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Bait-and-switch tactic alive and well on Net

It may be the New Economy but Brian Livingston reports how one of the less delightful practices of the "old economy" is very much in vogue on the Internet.

Ken Allen couldn't figure out why the digital camera advertised on a Web site was "in stock" when he first spoke with a live telephone salesperson, but suddenly became "out of stock" a minute later.

After several frustrating calls to different retailers, enlightenment finally dawned. Each store actually did have the camera in stock--until Allen declined to buy any extra batteries, memory cards, or other pricey add-ons.

In the retail trade, this routine is called "bait and switch," or, perhaps we should say, "batteries and switch." Whatever name you use, this slippery practice seems to have slithered online from the brick-and-mortar world whence it came.

To test my suspicions, I assigned two researchers to call the toll-free numbers of eight online retailers that offer the Olympus C-3040 Zoom, the digital camera Allen wanted. This popular $600-plus gadget comes standard with plenty of accessories: a pair of batteries, a 16 MB memory card, software, lens cap and strap.

On two consecutive days, my covert consumers dialed eight e-tailers, ensuring that each store was tested twice. In every instance, we queried each store's Web site as well as a telephone salesperson to confirm that the camera was in stock. If so, the callers then tried to buy the standard package alone, without further add-ons.

The results, even for a cynical shopper like me, were depressing. Salespeople at six of the eight stores, faced with a camera-only buyer, magically discovered that the item was sold out. The other two stores were genuinely out of stock or were unclear.

This is by no means, of course, a scientific survey. We deliberately tested low-price discounters, including a number of sites that had irritated Allen. But the results show how easily a telemarketer can pressure you with bait-and-switch tactics--unless you know what to look out for.

Both of my callers agreed that their most memorable experience was with an online store named CCI Camera City.

A salesman, I'll call Joe, confirmed to one caller that the item was in stock for $599, saying, "I can get this camera to you in five days." But things got a little chilly after the caller declined to buy extra memory, charger, and case for another $245.

Joe set the phone aside for half a minute, pretending to place the caller on hold, then said, "Actually, I won't be able to get that to you in five days. It looks like it'll be two to three weeks before it ships."

The following day, my second caller declined to buy accessories priced at $180 from a different salesman, who I'll call Rudy. Despite the fact that the camera was, indeed, in stock, Rudy said it would take two to three weeks before it was sent out. "It has to go through processing and shipping," Rudy explained. "If you need it sooner, I'd say order it from someone else."

Asked about these shopping experiences, CCI Vice President Jack Reed said, "We ship in a day or two." He said his salesmen may have confused the date the camera could be shipped with how long shipping by ground would require. My callers scoffed at this explanation.

It's easy to surmise that numerous Web sites sell some items at a loss to attract customers. Salespeople are strongly tempted to build their commissions by recommending overpriced add-ons.

Despite the hungry salesman problem, it's understandable for a cautious Web surfer to want confirmation of availability from a live person before ordering an expensive item.

To protect yourself, use the Web to learn which accessories are included in an item's standard packaging. Then, if a salesperson won't help you order just what you want, buy the item using a Web site that allows you to track the progress of your shipment.

That may not be the lowest-cost Web site. But at least you can find out the next day whether the product has actually left the warehouse.

Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.