Amazon.com's Accidental Bargains



Shoppers visiting Amazon.com Inc.'s electronics store Monday night found major bargains on computer memory when an apparent glitch caused a handful of products to be sold for a fraction of their retail prices. A Viking 256-Mbyte memory board retailing for $9.99 reached No. 1 in Amazon's sales rankings before the price was corrected Tuesday morning to $329.99, and a 1-Gbyte board sold for $10.77 before being corrected to $999.99.

The cause of the mistake, how many orders were taken, and how the company will respond aren't known at this point. Spokesmen for Amazon declined to discuss the situation, saying it was under investigation. Amazon's pricing policies state that if an item is incorrectly priced, the company can cancel the sale, but as of 3 p.m. EST Tuesday, the orders had not been canceled, and customers who bought the components still showed the discounted price in their accounts' order status.

Jason Williams, a network administration student who describes himself as an "avid Internet deal hunter," became aware of the low prices through a forum on another Web site. He figured it was a mistake, but placed two orders anyway, buying $3,000 worth of RAM for about $80. He doesn't expect the sale to be honored, but says it was worth a try.

Amazon isn't the first E-business to face this problem. In March, a glitch on Travelocity.com L.P. let customers book free rooms at a Hilton hotel in Mexico City. Hilton decided not to honor the rate, but offered each affected customer one free night at the hotel as an "act of goodwill." For about an hour on Jan. 31, a computer error let 143 people buy fantastically discounted tickets for international travel through United Airlines Inc.'s Web site. United canceled the tickets, but after customer outcry, it agreed to honor the sales. "Although we had a very solid legal footing, we decided not to make that a point of contention," says a spokesman for United. "We just listened to our customers."

No matter what Amazon decides to do, Williams figures he's already won. "When an online company makes a mistake, if you complain enough you usually get a free gift certificate or something to satisfy you," he says. "You can't really lose."

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