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Cheap RAM a fleeting memory on Amazon

A pricing glitch on Viking memory modules leads to deep discounts, but the e-tailer does not plan to ship any of the approximately 2,000 orders it received.

    Claude Johnson found a bargain on Monday night: a 1GB memory module normally listed at $999.99 on sale at Amazon.com for $19.99.

    Planning on building a server, the Irvine, Calif., Unix engineer ordered four of the Viking Component modules and immediately received a notice from Amazon confirming that he had ordered $4,000 worth of memory for a mere $83 with shipping. A co-worker also ordered some of the deeply discounted RAM.

    "Getting as much RAM for as little as I can was appealing," Johnson said. "If the RAM shows up at my doorstep, I'm not arguing."

    Unfortunately for Johnson, he probably won't receive it. The deep discount was due to a pricing glitch on Amazon that the company fixed late Monday night. Amazon does not plan to ship any of the approximately 2,000 orders it received, company spokesman Justin Osmer said.

    Instead, Amazon will send customers an apology letter from Viking, which Osmer says is to blame for the problem. Those customers will also receive a $15 gift certificate to Amazon from Viking, he said.

    "We're in the process of notifying customers right now," Osmer said.

    The $19.99 price for the 1GB RAM was one of 12 mismarked memory prices that Viking sent to Amazon on Friday, said Viking spokeswoman Christina Karpowitz, blaming the problem on an "input error." Karpowitz said the same list went out to all of Viking's e-tail customers.

    This is not the first time Amazon has been hit with a pricing problem. In September, a glitch in the company's DVD department led to discounts of up to 75 percent on a number of titles. The company's response to a pricing problem at its toy store in August led consumers to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau, charging that Amazon was trying to pull a bait and switch.

    Amazon is not the only e-tailer that has had to content with pricing problems. In January, online consumers used leaked coupon codes to get discounts of up to 50 percent off goods at Macys.com. Last year, Staples.com sold computer desks, school supplies and briefcases to customers for almost nothing as a result of a couple of coupon fiascos.

    Offline stores have been plagued by mis-priced items for years. While many honor mistaken prices, the damage caused is often limited to the few customers in a store who happen to notice the mistaken price.

    In contrast, the Internet has allowed consumers to broadcast pricing glitches far and wide through online message boards such as those on FatWallet.com and AnandTech. By the time an online store can correct an error, it may already be overwhelmed with orders.

    Raj Shah, Webmaster of the DealSpree.com Web site, said he ordered 25 of the 256MB memory modules. Normally priced at $329.99, the memory was priced at $9.99 because of the glitch.

    After placing his own order, Shah said he placed a link to the discounted memory on his Web site. Some 800 customers clicked through and placed orders, he said.

    "A lot of people were taking advantage of the deal," Shah said, adding that he didn't expect Amazon to ship the orders. "This is a no-risk lottery kind of thing: If I get it, that's cool. But I don't think anyone expects thousands of dollars for pennies on the dollar."