Dell customers get snappy at pricing error

In the latest online pricing error, Dell customers are up in arms about a deal that looked too good to be true - and unfortunately was. Lawyers say it all depends on the terms and conditions

Dell buyers who thought they were getting a $1600 Canon camera lens for the knock-down price of $196 are turning to online forums to vent their anger, as Dell blames the deal on a typo.

It is just the latest example of how online vendors can fall foul of the ire of customers looking for a deal. Dell, which has suffered from online pricing errors in the past, uses its terms and conditions to protect itself though lawyers caution that companies should not take this form of protection too far. Dell's terms and conditions state that the company "is not responsible for pricing, typographical, or other errors", and the company has been telling customers that it reserves the right to cancel any orders resulting from such errors.

Would-be lens-buyer Eric Sorensen, who posted his Dell chat session with a customer support person to an active forum on the camera site, provided perhaps the best illustration of how frustrated some felt at what they considered to be Dell's stonewalling. "Doesn't look good from my standpoint", summarised Sorensen, after a lengthy chat in which Dell said he could cancel his order or accept a replacement $230 lens, but not have the $1600 part.

The problem appears to have begun on Thursday evening when Dell advertised a "Canon 100-400mm L f/4.5-5.6 IS USM telephoto zoom lens," which normally retails for $1600, at the "killer" price of $196.

According to one ZDNet UK correspondent, those who placed an order received two emails confirming the purchase with an item description matching this particular lens. "The first email confirmed that the order was received and the second email confirmed that it was acknowledged." Dell authorised the funds on credit cards, but when consumers worried about the offer logged on to Dell's order status page to verify their purchase, they discovered that the descriptions had changed and now read "Canon 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 III USM telephoto zoom lens," which retails at $230.

Gavin McGinty, solicitor with Pinsent Masons, said there are two separate issues for Dell here: "What will ultimately protect Dell is the contract formation process, and how it talks about the offer and acceptance," said McGinty. "Dell should say that the customer's order is a offer to Dell to buy the goods, and Dell then would propose to the buyer that it checks and order and if it is happy, accepts the offer."

Some companies still send out confirmation emails that say 'thanks for your order, this has been accepted', said McGinty. "That is bad practice because it leaves you at real risk of pricing errors." Companies should always make it clear that the email is not acceptance of the offer, he said. "Many big sites do this -- Amazon says acceptance of the offer only takes place on dispatch of the goods. Dell is fairly hot on these things, so I would be amazed if Dell's terms didn't work on these lines."

Dell did not immediately return a request for comment.

If Dell had got the stage of actually sending out goods, said McGinty, then at that point the company would be in trouble.

Dell also appears to have protected itself with the terms and conditions, added McGinty, though this is not as clear-cut as it might seem. "That is good in some ways because shows the company takes the issue seriously," he said, adding that placing such statements have pitfalls all of their own. "The Office of Fair Trading is cracking down on Web site terms and conditions, and I think there is a risk that putting such a sweeping clause in consumer terms and conditions here can fall into a grey area of consumer law and have to be drafted very carefully."


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