Sears Price Glitch: Is It Time To Slow Down Third-Party Site Access?

Written by Evan Schuman
July 21st, 2011

Allowing third parties to directly control parts of your site is a great way to improve efficiency: They can generate online disasters at a fraction of the cost of doing it yourself. Such is the lesson that Sears learned—or should we say re-learned—last week when the retailer found itself selling $500 iPads for $69.

Sears has at least learned to share the pain, as the Sears third party that glitched the pricing—GSM Onsale—found its site down within hours. GSM said the pricing error was “due to a software maintenance error.”

What happened to its site is more of a mystery. went down shortly after the Sears glitch, with a note that said “our online site is currently closed for maintenance. Please visit us again soon.” Six days later, the site is still down. Also, the message had something that we’ve never seen before with a site that expects to be back up anytime soon: a large red “Closed” icon in the middle of the page.

To its credit, Sears quickly fessed up and posted a note on its Facebook page: “Unfortunately, today one of the Marketplace third-party sellers told us that they mistakenly posted incorrect pricing on two Apple iPad models on the Marketplace portion of the Web site. If you purchased either of these products recently, your order has been cancelled and your account will be credited. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

This type of pricing glitch is hardly new, with a recent Target pricing problem being even more problematic. No, the real question is whether sites should have more extensive systems in place to act as a gatekeeper for third-party content providers.

Sears is no stranger to the problems that a third party can cause. Who can forget the classic “grills to cook babies” disaster that Akamai foisted on Sears?

The question, though, is what type of mechanisms make sense. Gatekeepers are certainly easy to add, but they take away from the low-cost fast-turnaround reasons the third parties were given direct access in the first place.

Perhaps a focus solely on pricing problems might be the way to go. When Zappos suffered a pricing meltdown, it cost $1.6 million to fix. And Amazon itself fell victim to the wayward pricetag last year when it tried selling a Windows 98 CD-ROM for $3 billion.

The program could look for any meaningful deviations between approved pricing lists—reviewed by a human before the products can be posted—and those that are about to appear on the site. It wouldn’t catch all of these, but perhaps a little slowness with third parties wouldn’t be such a bad thing.


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