Petco Releases Coupon On Internet, Forgets How Internet Works

25percentPetco had a really fun promotion this past Saturday. Customers printed out a coupon from the retailer’s site, and scanned it at the checkout. Customers wouldn’t know the total value of their coupon until it was scanned. This sounds really fun, doesn’t it? Only there was a flaw. Only four barcodes for the coupons existed, and customers who clicked on the “mystery” coupon link would receive one of the four. It didn’t take long for customers to figure out which of the codes was for a 50% off coupon and head to Petco to stock up on essentials for their critters. Thus began a very, very bad day to be a Petco employee.

Victor, an avid deal-seeker, sets the scene.

Petco had a promotion on Saturday the 15th for up to 50% off your entire purchase when you print out and bring in the coupon from their site. You don’t know the value until it’s scanned at the register. At least…that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The internet being what it is, and the Petco IT department decision to use 4 non-unique coupon codes meant that people figured out which coupon was 50% off within minutes and were emailing friends direct links to the coupon on Petco’s site to print out Friday night. By Saturday morning the coupon had gone viral in a BIG way. Petco corporate was clueless/helpless until about 1pm PST when they changed the 50% off page so it always pointed to the 10% off coupon (while still advertising a now-impossible shot at 50% to consumers answering their promo email). At about 5pm PST they finally changed the gif graphic to the 10% coupon as well and put new quickie signs up in stores saying the max redemption of ANY Petco coupon was $25.

When will these 20th century retail stores understand that a promotion sent via email, especially a HOT promotion like 50% off, REQUIRES unique coupon codes? Blaming customers by calling the coupon ON THEIR SITE fraudulent is bad form. Also, changing the game so it was impossible to get 50% coupons while still advertising “up to 50%” is bad form, too.

But I’m sure they had a banner day for sales…at 50% off for the ones that got in before 1pm PST.

I’ve attached a sample of the 50% off version of the coupon and one of the signs in-store at Petco after they tried to shut down their own “fraudulent” coupon.

Customers in Petco stores were told that the coupons were fraudulent and that the site had been hacked. One shopper wrote about the fiasco in her blog:

I went to check out and gave the cashier my coupon. She said, “I cannot accept this because it is fake” I was perplexed, the coupon was clearly hosted on their website (and in fact still is as I type this). She claimed that someone “hacked their website and created this coupon”. I said that I really doubt that is what happened and that I wasn’t going to buy anything. I told her that IF their site was hacked why was the coupon still on their website? Could it be that Petco created this coupon, which was supposed to be a mystery coupon, and made a mistake when ALL the coupons take 50% off?

You know, this sounds familiar. Back in 2010, Kmart e-mailed a coupon that said it was valid in all stores, but was only valid in a few metro areas. It was just a PDF posted on Kmart’s site, though, and went viral. Customers who tried to use it were accused of trying to pass fraudulent coupons.

We’ve contacted Petco to get their side of the story, and will update this post when we find out.


Edit Your Comment

  1. MaxH42 needs an edit button says:

    All this because they were too cheap to program it so that each page load gets a unique coupon code, and then assign one out of every 4 (or 10) codes the 50% off value at the register.

  2. bnceo says:

    Pure lazy IT work by Petco.

  3. Blueskylaw says:

    “Customers wouldn’t know the total
    value of their coupon until it was scanned”

    Sorry, you did not win anything at this time.
    Thank you for shopping at Petco and please come again.

  4. Marlin says:

    I keep seeing things like this every year. Does no one at these corps think yea no one will take advantage of a good thing?
    In the “old days” if someone f__ked up you had time to clean it up. But with the internet/e-mail/etc… everyone’s F-U’s are front page reddit, fatwallet, or any other site 5 minutes later.

    I give it another 10 years before piles of people running for office have all their HS/College “photos” and “stories” come back to haunt them.

    • raydeebug says:

      Do you really want someone like Jack Johnson as your president? Look at him, with his hat on sideways and his collar popped. Look at him planking on things! Look at him, doing that ice cream cone thing at McDonalds! Look at him, sitting around on a patio with friends, making duck faces. IS THAT ALCOHOL!?!?

    • MutantMonkey says:

      Undoubtedly the conversation went like this:

      PetCoExec: Let’s do a promotion where we send people coupons for up to 50% off.

      ITGuy: I can definitely do something like this. Give me a few days to get a code generator going and we can start sending out emails.

      PetCoExec: No way we are going to pay you for a few hours of work. Just create 4 coupons and call it a day.

      ITGuy: You’ll end up with the 50% coupon being all over the net. I don’t think that is a good idea.

      PetCoExec: I am the pinnacle of human intelligence. If I don’t understand how the internet works, no way our idiot customers will. Time for my massage.

  5. TheUncleBob says:

    Stupid on PetCo, but really – who thinks that they should endlessly honor this? The coupon wasn’t designed for every single individual – and by mailing out the direct link was not an intended part of the promotion. In fact, one could probably make a case that distributing the direct link could be considered copying or transferring the coupon.

    So, congrats internet. You probably cost some low-level employee their job (although, let’s be honest, if they set up a promotion this stupid, they probably deserve it) and you’ve scared more business away from trying to use the internet to offer us deals.

    • longfeltwant says:

      They should find a way to honor the coupons according to the original intent.

      For instance, reprogram the computers so that when any of the four codes is scanned, a random discount is applied. This should take a competent programmer about one hour to accomplish. Here’s a head start:

      if(barcode in (barcode1, barcode2, barcode3, barcode4)) {

      • TheUncleBob says:

        I wonder how many people would print out this coupon expecting it to be the 50% off, get there with a cart full of stuff, find out it’s only 10% and still get mad and leave. ;)

        • anker says:

          I was thinking the same thing. Probably a few full carts were abandoned at the checkout after 1:00. The security cameras of their faces after they rang it all up, scanned the coupon and then realized would have been great.

      • Southern says:

        I would love to agree, but it would take time – you don’t just make changes to a live POS system like that on a code level. That’s why you go the “4 coupon” route, because the coupon database that the POS system references only has to “look up” the coupon at that point.

        That’s also why a code generator wouldn’t work, they would have to add a seperate entry to the coupon database for every coupon printed, which could run up into the millions, depending on how many people print/redeem the coupons. Most companies that you see that do this use targeted mailings (“coupon only good for” for instance).

        Not that the email address matters, but they can prepopulate the coupon database and have more control over how many unique coupons (and codes) are out there. (Plus that gives them some marketing info, since they know WHO redeemed the coupon).

        Your solution is definitely best for a “random value” coupon, it just couldn’t be done in an hour. :)

        • TheUncleBob says:

          The best plan would be to have a generic barcode for the 10% off coupon and specific one-time use coupons for the higher percentages.

      • Jawaka says:

        The “original intent” was for probably only 25% (or even less) of tickets being 50% off.

    • AzCatz07 says:

      I completely agree. This sense of entitlement everyone seems to have these days is disturbing. Why can’t people get a coupon, print it out, and use it? Why does everything have to go viral as people try to take advantage of any way they can find to screw over a company with good intentions.

      Yes, their IT department screwed up, but this crap is why we can’t have nice things. Shame on the people who tried to take advantage of Petco’s mistake. These are the same type of people who would call everyone they know if the local gas station was accidentally undercharging for gas instead of notifying the station of the error.

      • MMD says:

        So, let me understand this…

        If you were presented with 4 coupons and told their value, you wouldn’t choose the best deal out of…I don’t know, some sense of honor? And those who do choose the best deal are “entitled”?

        • TheUncleBob says:

          That’s not how the promotion was intended to work.

          It’s like there were four coupons in four random envelopes. You were supposed to pick one and get the coupon inside.

          The promotion was never intended to allow everyone to use the 50% off coupon.

          • longfeltwant says:

            Intentions… road to hell…

            We plebeians might have a more strict ethic on intentions if the managers of big corporations showed a similar ethic. Alas.

            • AzCatz07 says:

              I pride myself in having much higher ethical standards than corporations. This promotion wasn’t supposed to be for everyone to get half off. But everyone wants to have half off, even though they’re not supposed to get it. It’s entitlement at its best.

              • MMD says:

                So if I stumble on the link for the 50% off coupon on Slickdeals or whatever, I’m “entitled” for using it? And if a friend forwards it to me, I’m supposed to research its context and divine the intent of the promotion?

                Execute the promotion correctly and the whole thing’s moot.

              • BorkBorkBork says:

                Love your comments AzCatz.

                I always get bothered when people get high and mighty about “greedy corporations.” People like those abusing this coupon are no less greedy than the CEOs they accuse.

                Even more entertaining is hearing them try to justify why it’s ok for them to be dishonest/unethical, etc. Total hypocrites.

          • MMD says:

            The intent didn’t match the execution, though, did it? And if I’m cruising Slickdeals or some such and I see a link to the 50% off coupon, am I obligated to research the promotion to see what the intent was?

      • bityard says:

        Petco were the ones who made the mistake, it’s their job to deal with it. Unfortunately they chose to make it worse by dealing with it in just about the worst way imaginable via a combination by lying about it on their website (removing the 50% coupon), lying about it at the stores (hax0rs!), and then flat-out changing the terms of the deal by changing it from a 50% off discount into a $25 off discount.

        And finally, let me make this one point very clear: Petco never had any “good intentions” with this coupon debacle. They didn’t do it to be nice or charitable or anything of the sort. It was a marketing campaign (poorly) designed to increase sales, foot traffic into their store, and eyeballs on their logo. They did it to make money. Consumers used the coupons to try to save money for things they would have bought any way. In this case, it didn’t work out well for either group.

    • spartan says:

      I for on think they should honopr. Up thru the expiration date. If I showed up thinking I had a 1 in 4 chance of a half price coupon, thats what I am entitled to.

      They made the offer to build traffic and increase sales; and in my state (California) they probably violated the Busiest and Professions Code with their promotion.

      Besides, it was a stupid promotion. Even if they used coupon codes, what would stop me from going to the register with the maximum amount of merchandise, and a random coupon and not completing the purchase (or buying and returning later) had I not had the 50 voucher.

  6. techstar25 says:

    I hate that nobody has to take responsibility for their actions anymore. No matter how ridiculous the issue, all they have to say is “It was hacked” and suddenly they’re off the hook. It’s become the universal excuse.

  7. longfeltwant says:

    The thing to do is to switch around the coupon values that night, before all the cheaters take the coupons in. 50% coupons switch to 5% coupons, 10% coupons stay the same, 20% coupons become 50% coupons, and 30% coupons become 20% coupons. Now it’s the same promotion, but all the cheaters are sniped.

    Then, fire your CTO and the entire implementation team below him. Finally, hire my friends and I, because we could do this better.

    • Laura Northrup says:

      That would require that the someone working for Petco read sites like Slickdeals, and that upper management listen to that person.

      • Chuft-Captain says:

        Nah, they wouldn’t need to have actually seen those sites. Anyone with an inkling should have foreseen exactly this problem and could have just planned that move ahead of time.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      Are you posting from a work computer? :-)

    • Bladerunner says:

      Doing it the night before wouldn’t help…The issue is they used 4 non-unique codes, so the first guy who got 50% off said “Hey, it’s code 1234567890!”

      • Chuft-Captain says:

        You’re not reading his comment correctly. The coupons were put out BEFORE the promotion itself by at least a day. He’s saying that they should have expected this, whether or not they actually saw it happening, and planned ahead. Hence, late on Friday night/early early Saturday morning, before the stores opened, they should have gone in and changed which coupon was what value from the original assignments. The same four codes would be used, they would just be different codes than originally planned.

        • psm321 says:

          I think Bladerunner’s point is that as soon as the stores opened people would figure it out and share the word and then people would print the now-50% one. To make your idea work they would have to be rotating codes almost constantly.

      • noahproblem1 says:

        What a coincidence – the first five digits of that code are the same as the code on my luggage!

  8. nybiker says:

    I wonder if the Padres are rethinking their tie-in with them in light of this not-so-good publicity. My guess is no, but this time it’s a coupon tempest in a teapot; next time, bad dog food. Then see the storm that would create (and rightfully so, and so is this coupon boo-boo).

    • AzCatz07 says:

      Why in the world would the Padres reconsider the money they’ve accepted from Petco for the naming rights to their stadium? That’s just silly. Do you think the Padres should just give Petco back the $60 million plus it got from Petco?

      As a baseball fan who’s been to tons of games in San Diego and around the country, I can tell you most fans understand that naming rights is just part of the business. Do you think all the bad publicity Chase gets has hurt attendance at Diamondback games? The Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium. Has bad press hurt their attendance?

      • spartan says:

        Enter text…

      • TheMansfieldMauler says:

        The Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium. Has bad press hurt their attendance?

        Ask the DNC. “Panthers Stadium” was the phrase they kept using, refusing to say “BofA Stadium”.

        • AzCatz07 says:

          Could it be that they called it that because nobody really knows it as B of A Stadium? I’m not a Carolinian, so I have no idea. What do the locals call it?

          I still call Chase field the BOB, from when it was named Bank One Ballpark. The Padres stadium, if I recall correctly, has always been named Petco. It’s not the same stadium that was Jack Murphy Stadium. If it were, I’m sure the locals would call it Jack Murphy and not Petco.

          Anyway, I think you missed my point. As a sports fan, I’m not going to boycott a team just because of the name on the stadium.

  9. Robert Nagel says:

    When my Dad was a young lad, back in the twenties, there was a promotion at he local store whereby if you picked the chocolate candy with the cherry center you got a small box of candy as a prize. He looked carefully are realized that there was a very small difference between the two types. After winning too often he was banned from competing.
    He learned early.

    • MMD says:

      As a kid, I went to a carnival that had a duck pond game. The ducks had numbers on the bottom, and you got to pick prizes based on your number. The first time I played, I chose the duck that yielded the biggest prize. I noticed it had a little black mark next to its eye. So, of course, I played again and picked the same duck. Then I was accused of cheating.

      Sorry, but it’s not cheating to exercise my powers of observation. If you’re going to put a recognizable mark on the winning duck, how am I wrong to notice it? So I learned a lesson that day, too…some people will always blame others for their mistakes.

  10. some.nerd says:

    Aww, how did I miss this? I just ran out of wet cat food AND litter this morning! Arrrgh, I hate paying full price for that stuff. Woomp-woooomp…

  11. MBZ321 says:

    I used this coupon on Saturday and the cashier didn’t even seem to be phased by the 50% off. I only “saved” $40 or so (loaded up on a bunch of rat bedding and supplies), but according to the massive SlickDeals thread, people spent $1,000’s, expensive birds, food, etc while only paying 1/2. (If it makes it any better, a lot of people said they were donating items to their local shelter).

  12. tidomonkey says:

    The coupons that were obtained by skipping the randomization system by using a direct link were fraudulent, plain and simple. The people who tried to go around the system that was setup are to blame, not Petco.

    It was very foolish of Petco to think that people would not take advantage such an easily manipulated system, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that some, not all, went around their weak security to take what was not legally offered to them.

    Just because I leave my possessions unlocked doesn’t mean you have the right to take them.

  13. Jawaka says:

    The promotion was supposed to be a luck of the draw process where you had a chance at getting from 10-50% off your purchase. People found a way to exploit the promotion and cheat. Sure Petco could have done more to prevent people from gaming the system but in the end people still cheat. There was no more chance at 50% off. It was an automatic thing.

    So in the end yeah I do blame the customers more than I blame Petco. This is why we can’t have good things people.

    • who? says:

      I blame petco. Security 101 teaches that people will try to game the system. Petco clearly had not done 5 minutes of analysis on whether or not the system could be gamed.

  14. MaxH42 needs an edit button says:

    For everyone who claims the consumers were cheating: let’s assume that Petco tried to do the same thing in print, and put coupons of differing value in mailers. Would it be “cheating” to go around collecting these coupons from recycling or trash bins, or asking your neighbors if you could have theirs, in order to find and use the highest value coupon? I’m not talking about hoarding or extreme couponing, but I might e-mail local friends or co-workers if this was done with a high-value coupon on something I know I would buy anyway.

    The analogy isn’t perfect because in print Petco can specify the number of each coupon. But either way, Petco was trying to make it a mystery what the value of each coupon was, but consumers figured it out anyway. That part isn’t cheating. Some people didn’t get the coupon the way Petco wanted, but passing along a print coupon is limited by the fact that it’s a physical object. Digital images are not constrained by that, and Petco failed by not uniquely identifying coupons or limiting them in some way. You could accuse some people of “pirating” the coupons by not obtaining them in the way Petco intended, but considering all you’d have to do to honestly obtain the highest value coupon is reload the page a few times until it displayed the bar code corresponding to that coupon, IMO copying the image is a trivial shortcut.

    • tidomonkey says:

      Like you said, your analogy isn’t quite right because they had a system in place to control the percentage of people who get the best coupons and people figure out how to go around it.

      A better analogy would be: someone handing out coupons to customers randomly from three boxes, then a customer finds out box # 3 has the best coupon. So, instead of asking for a coupon and waiting for a random one, they just take one from box #3 without permission.

      • MaxH42 needs an edit button says:

        But they didn’t have “a system in place to control the percentage of people who get the best coupons”. They had a system where a percentage of PAGE VIEWS got the best coupons. Besides, to extend your analogy, what happened is more like some people trading coupons with someone they saw got one from #3 or getting back in line until they got one from #3. The number of coupons were not limited and could not run out, so Petco didn’t only have x number of 50% off coupons. That was why they shouldn’t have expected for the redemption to match their intended distribution, the supply of all coupons was unlimited.

      • MMD says:

        Except that your analogy assumes that the person handing out the coupons maintains control of those coupons at all times until a customer receives one. Since, as the headline points out, that’s not how the internet works, your analogy isn’t really relevant to this case.

      • tgauchsin says:

        An even better analogy:

        Petco has four boxes which contains an infinite amount of coupons. Box #1 contains coupons for 10%, Box #2 – 20%, Box #3 – 30% and Box #4 – 50%.

        Petco places the boxes outside their store – on public property – without anyone from Petco monitoring them.

        Some random person takes a coupon from Box #4, goes inside, uses the coupon and discovers that Box #3 contains 50% coupons. Said person stands next to the boxes tells everyone that Box #4 contains 50% off coupons.

        Petco yells, “No Fair! You’re Cheating! We’re not honoring these coupons!”

        • tgauchsin says:

          “uses the coupon and discovers that Box #3 contains 50% coupons. ”

          Should read, “Box #4”

          Grrr….Fat fingers.

  15. mcgyver210 says:

    So if I understand this correctly when they found out they made a Marketing mistake they decided it was a good idea to then change the rules. After this in their wisdom they decided to rig it in their favor essentially committing FRAUD on their customers.

    Hm…. Reminds me of a Restaurant that I believe is almost out of business now that defrauded me & many others with a internet coupon.

  16. JonBoy470 says:

    In gaming they call behavior like this “griefing”. I don’t see how it’s cheating the system. Bad on Petco for not designing the promo better. I mean come on! If you’re allowing people to print out coupons on their home computer, you have no means of authenticating the coupon itself (i.e. you can’t say “no photocopies” etc.) so you have to roll with dynamically generated, one-time use coupons, or be resigned to having this happen…

  17. shifuimam says:

    This seems like it could have been pretty easily avoided.

    I’ve had a Kohl’s credit card for years now. Kohl’s sends out coupons once a month to their cardholders, in a random amount of 15, 20, or 30% off. The coupon comes with a code you can enter online, so you can use it in-store or on the website. You have use your Kohl’s charge card with the coupon.

    The code is linked to your card number, so you *can’t* use a different coupon code (the codes are static, like JULY30 or something). Since this promo appears to have been directed at Petco Pals cardholders, the promo should have been tied to either the card number or the member’s email address – and if it doesn’t match up, it doesn’t work. Seems like that also would have been easier to facilitate than trying to randomly generate barcodes for each and every member.