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Efficiency Gone Wild: Target’s Easy Way To Screw Up Prices

Written by Frank Hayes
January 26th, 2011

Pricing mistakes are still the bane of E-Commerce, and now Target seems to have come up with a much more efficient way of creating them. Last Sunday (Jan. 16), Target began offering a Sony PlayStation 3 (list price: $350 to $500) for $39.99 on both Target.com and the retailer’s Amazon store. What’s interesting, though, is how the foul-up appears to have happened. It looks like there really was a new product Target intended to sell. But instead of creating a new page for that product, a Web site designer decided to modify an existing page—and before that new page was completed, it somehow hit the sites.

The clues are in the mismatched description on Target.com for the product, which the small print describes as the “PlayStation Move sharp shooter.” It turns out there is a new add-on for the PlayStation with that name. According to Sony, its list price is $39.99 (which matches the Target.com page) and it is scheduled to be available in February (which matches the description on Target’s page that reads, “Arriving soon! Order now for shipment in 2 to 4 weeks”).

The price, delivery date and small-print description all match up with the yet-to-be-released product. But what wasn’t changed from the outdated page were the headline, picture and customer reviews (which are all dated 2007).

Apparently, halfway through the process of editing the page for the new product, it was sent to the production system and automatically turned into a live page on the Target.com site. And that apparently triggered a revival of the outdated page in Target’s Amazon store, which included none of the inconsistent details except the $39.99 price.

That’s an E-Commerce nightmare: A few wrong keystrokes, plus the automation that’s designed to make an E-Commerce site easy to manage, resulted in an absurd price for a product that the retailer doesn’t have in stock anyway.

When the mismatched Target PlayStation description went live, alert customers quickly jumped on the deal and spread the word across the Internet, even though both Web pages contained a mishmash of contradictory information—for example, Target.com’s description was for a machine-gun-like game controller, not the PlayStation itself—and both sites listed the product as “out of stock.”

Target and Amazon both have policies published on their Web sites that let them cancel orders because of pricing errors, and the next day customers received E-mails with the bad news.

This incident is reminiscent—although not as spectacular as—what happened with a pricing-engine error last year at Zappos, which resulted in the E-tailer honoring mistakenly low prices and losing $1.6 million.


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