Over the weekend, a set of markers went on sale on Staples.com for about $16. Markers at an office-supply store–what’s so interesting about that? These were large sets of Copic markers, high-end art tools that list for almost forty times that much. Now the customers who aren’t getting multiple marker sets for $549 off are enraged at Staples for not honoring the erroneous price.
“Bait and switch!” and “False advertising!” are their battle cries, but it isn’t that simple. Offering something at a great price, then canceling orders because the price was an error is neither.
We have to review this every time there’s a similar massive pricing error and consumers take to the Internet with flaming pixels and pitchforks. If the company catches the error before shipping your purchase, they are not legally obligated to uphold their end of the deal.
People aren’t clear on what “bait and switch” actually means. Here’s a handy example from a Classic Consumerist post in 2007:
You see an ad for Lawnmower A. You go to Pete’s Lawnmower Store and you tell Pete that you’d like Lawnmower A.
Pete says, “Great! Here’s lawnmower A. Just so you know, Lawnmower A is only good for people who have very small lawns. You might like Lawnmover B better!”
You say, “No way, Pete. My yard is the size of Paris Hilton’s bra. I want Lawnmower A!”
Pete says, “Well, honestly, Lawnmower A sucks. We’re trying to clear them out, but you seem like a nice guy and I’d hate to sell you this piece of crap lawnmower. Last week, this lawnmower killed 5 children. You’d be better off with Lawnmower B.”
You say, “Gosh Pete. I don’t care for children anyway. Give me Lawnmower A.”
Pete says, “Ok, Lawnmower A will take 6 months to ship. It’s on backorder.”
You say, “I’ll have no grass in 6 months. Sell me the floor model.”
Pete says, “I can’t sell the floor model, or my boss Super Pete will make me pay $600.”
You say, “Ok, Pete. I’ll just take Lawnmower B.”
Pete says, “Here’s your free shovel!”
That was the bait and switch.
In the Staples case, there is no Lawnmower B. Staples gets nothing out of selling markers for $16 to people who never would have bought them at full price.
If they advertised a set of Copic markers for $16 and you got a set of Sharpies instead, that would be false advertising. If they canceled the $16 orders and offered customers a special price of only $200 for a smaller set of colors, that would definitely be a bait and switch.
Some customers have reported being charged the full price of the markers on the card they used for payment later on. That is not cool, and when a company sets out to do that intentionally, it’s fraud. It doesn’t sound like that’s what happened here.
We’re not telling you that it’s bad or immoral to take advantage of a pricing error when you see one. However, it is unreasonable to expect a company, even a Big Bad Corporation, to lose hundreds of dollars on a transaction if they catch the error before shipping your purchase. There was no $69 iPad, there were no 14 cent Cheerios, and there are no $16 Copics.
We wrote to Staples to find out whether they had a statement on this mess, but they haven’t gotten back to us yet. We’ll let you know if they do.
STAPLES COPICS FIASCO [Tumblr]