Tech Industry

Pricing mistake prompts Buy.com rush

The e-commerce site advertises a monitor for hundreds less than the usual price, and it's unclear whether the company will deliver to those who ordered at the bargain price.

Will they ship, or won't they?

That is the question Buy.com customers were asking today after they placed orders for an incredibly low-priced computer monitor advertised on the e-commerce site, only to be told later that the company is out of stock.

The uproar began over the weekend, when Buy.com mistakenly listed the Hitachi SuperScan 753, a 19-inch monitor, for $164.50 plus shipping. Word spread fast among on Internet message boards and many rushed to order the monitor, which normally sells for $588.

By today, Buy.com's Web site listed the correct price, but it was too late: it had already received orders for the monitor at $164.50.

Anxious buyers who called Buy.com, which guarantees it will match any price on the Internet or offline, said they received conflicting answers from the company about the status of their orders. Some received email confirming their order at the lower price, but according to Buy.com's acceptance policy, those emails do not mean that the company has accepted the order or confirmed its offer to sell.

Dwight Zenzano, a Washington, D.C., law student who ordered a monitor, said Buy.com's customer service representatives were inconsistent when he called to ask whether his order was valid.

"The first time I called, they said there must have been some kind of mistake, and they just cancel all the orders," he said. "Now they claim they're all back ordered. I don't know if they're going to honor it or not."

Consumers also got conflicting information from the Buy.com Web site. When Steve Sarviel of Encinitas, California, tried to confirm his order by phone for one of the monitors today, he was told it was out of stock. The Web site continued to say it was in stock, at the higher price.

Sarviel, who develops e-commerce Web sites, said mistakes like this one hurt the industry as a whole. "I don't want sites like this to get customers to be wary of using them," he said. On the other hand, he'd like a straight answer from Buy.com.

Nor is this the first time Sarviel has ordered products from Buy.com only to be told the company was out of stock. Several months ago, he ordered recordable CDs at a price far below what they would normally sell for, but the order was later canceled.

Sarviel is not alone. The Better Business Bureau of Orange County, California, of which Buy.com is a member, said its records show 24 complaints about the company were filed in the last 30 days. Those complaints have yet to be answered; another 30 complaints made over the past three years were resolved.

Most of the complaints on file regard allegations that the company refused to honor incorrect prices advertised on its Web site, charged customer credit cards before they received their merchandise, and failed to respond promptly to customer inquiries.

The speed and volume of Internet commerce requires that e-commerce companies take extra care with the information they put out to the public, according to Vernon Keenan, an Internet analyst with KeenanVision in San Francisco. "Database quality assurance is a key thing for these retailers," he said.

Kelli Tejada, a spokeswoman for Buy.com, said the company tries to give its customer support representatives a standard set of information, but growing demand sometimes waylays the best of plans.

"From time to time people will state things differently because people do that," Tejada said. "The company makes a gigantic effort to be consistent."

Buy.com executives did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.