Screen and Shout

Buy.com monitor mishap irks Netizens

Give us monitors or give us death!" is not quite the stirring call to arms of the revolutionary era, but to a batch of disgruntled consumers online, it's the battle cry of a new generation. And to one OC company, it's a great big pain in the ass.

The victims, depending on whom you talk to: approximately 1,400 customers who ordered computer monitors and didn't get them. The heavy, again depending on whom you talk to: Aliso Viejo-based Buy.com, an online computer/music/video/etc. retailer, which in just over a month has gone from a rising e-commerce star to one of the most hated companies on the Internet.

The fracas began on a weekend in early February when Buy.com advertised a Hitachi monitor on its site for $164-a monitor that normally goes for about $580. Gleeful Internet shoppers spread the word on Usenet, and over the next few days, roughly 1,600 people ordered the monitors at the ridiculously low price.

Within days, Buy.com had confirmed that the price was a typo. It agreed to sell the 143 monitors it had in stock at the erroneous price and offer the remaining 1,400-plus customers the option of buying the monitor at its actual price or canceling their orders.

All hell broke loose. Those who didn't get their monitors were outraged that Buy.com decided to select the lucky recipients randomly, rather than on a first-come, first-served basis. They launched all kinds of Web sites and discussion forums to dis the company and call for revenge (a random sampling: Boycott Buy.com, Beware of Buy.com, I Hate Buy.com, Anti Buy.com and, with a certain Zen elegance, BUYCRAP.COM). Threats of legal action ensued, and on March 3, several customers filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court accusing the company of engaging in a pattern of false advertising.

Buy.com refused to comment, and repeated attempts to locate plaintiffs failed. But the California attorney general's office said that under state law, companies are not required to sell goods at an advertised price if the price was in error and the company took steps to correct the mistake; however, if a company engages in a pattern of such deception, it can be charged with false advertising. That's the claim of Santa Ana attorney Gary Sodikoff, who is representing the plaintiffs; he argues that Buy.com deliberately prices merchandise below market in order to attract banner advertising and advertises products without stating that it has only limited quantities available.

Few are disputing that Buy.com made efforts to correct its pricing error. When I last checked its Web site, it showed the Hitachi monitor for sale at $584.95. But after visiting the various anti-Buy.com sites, it becomes clear that either Buy.com has screwed up its business horrifically or has the worst public-relations problem since Gunga Din. The chief sentiments of Buy.com's mortal enemies online seem to be:

1. I don't care if it was an honest mistake. I want my monitor.

2. Buy.com handled the situation badly.

3. Buy.com deliberately entered the price wrong to attract more traffic to its site.

4. Buy.com has crappy customer service, and this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened.

Complaint No. 3, as alleged by Sodikoff, can be determined by the courts. But as for complaint No. 1, let's get real: from the beginning, people knew the price was a mistake. One sample Usenet posting on Feb. 6 gleefully admitted: "I think whoever entered the data on their database messed up big-time. . . . And I'm taking full advantage of it-hee, hee, hee, hee. If you want it, go and check it out before they catch on." On various discussion forums where people vented their anger after the Great Monitor Fiasco and threatened legal action, the same sentiments cropped up again and again. One person posted, "I am a student here in Houston and found this to be a great opportunity to make some bucks to pay for some of my next year's tuition." He/she ordered 10 monitors.

Come now. Does anybody really believe Buy.com has an obligation to shell out the dough for this person's college education? What probably happened here is that a bunch of people tried to take advantage of a typo to gouge a company for hundreds of thousands of dollars and stamped their feet when it didn't work.

On the other hand, it appears Buy.com may have royally screwed up their handling of this, and if so, their customers have a right to be angry (see complaints Nos. 2 and 4, above). Many of the posters on discussion forums related horror stories of how their order was handled-contradictory e-mail messages, credit cards charged for the purchase after they were told it had been canceled, claims that the money was not refunded to their cards for days. A typical tale selected from numerous similar complaints: "Not only did I receive a confirmation e-mail on the 8th, but I also received a cancellation today on the 11th. A couple of hours after the cancellation, my credit card was charged. NEWS FLASH!!!!! I just received yet another e-mail, but it says my monitor is on back order and it will be shipped in a couple of weeks. Hang on for the ride."

Because Buy.com would not comment, I can't say whether the situation is as bad as disgruntled customers claim online. But the accounts of customer-service hell are so pervasive it's natural to suspect there's some truth to them. And certainly those customers who ordered a monitor, were told the sale was canceled, and still had the purchase price charged to their credit cards are entitled to be furious. (Sodikoff admits that "most if not all" of his plaintiffs did receive refunds eventually.)

This kind of anecdote is not unique to Buy.com. A Jupiter Communications survey released earlier this month shows that e-commerce firms suffer a huge gap in customer service; more than half the firms contacted failed to respond to customer-service inquiries within five days.

But people who get shafted by a company's customer-service reps know what their recourse is: never shop there again. There's no worse punishment for a company than denying them your business until Satan is ice-skating in hell. And it's not like Buy.com is the only game in town: you can buy music at CDNow, books at Amazon.com, computers at Egghead Software and about a zillion other places. It's the punishment of the open marketplace: Buy.com will either fix what's wrong or go under.

And for those of you who are petulantly kicking the table leg because you didn't get your monitor and screw Buy.com out of several hundred bucks, Momma's got her spank ray fully charged.

Get in line.

Complain to Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.

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