Material world

Amazon price glitch: to buy or not to buy, that is the moral question

“In a dance as old as time”: Bristol shoppers get ready for some 1950s bargains. Paul Townsend, CC BY-ND

Christmas is never plain sailing. It’s tough on consumers trying to work out how much food to buy and how to get their hands on the latest must-have toy for children, and it’s tough for retailers trying to get the sales through the tills at what needs to be their busiest time of the year.

Perhaps retailers are more fixated by Christmas than consumers are; remember that most retailers are looking for at least one quarter of their sales in the month leading up to Christmas. So, when there is a hitch in the Christmas system it can spell problems for all.

Delivery companies, and Yodel in particular, have been in the news this Christmas for a variety of problems including non-delivery of goods. And now Amazon has hit the headlines with a technical problem with its pricing software from a third party provider. The problem led to hundreds of goods being sold on Amazon for as little as 1p. Poetic justice some might say, as this pricing software is continually adjusting Amazon’s prices to undercut rival suppliers. But if Amazon sneezes, Amazon’s Marketplace Sellers can find they catch pneumonia. Such was the impact that some were reportedly concerned that the loss of money could bankrupt their businesses if they had to provide the goods at such low prices.

Common cause

Perhaps there will emerge a consensus among retailers about a response to mistakenly mis-priced goods. Most internet sellers have experienced this at one time or another, and some have responded by not fulfilling the orders and writing to explain the error (with a little sweetener included, of course). For a while it looked as if Amazon might leave its Marketplace Sellers to fulfil their orders at the 1p prices, but third party service, RepricerExpress says Amazon’s latest response is that sellers will not be penalised. Quite what that means, and whether customers who miss out are in their thoughts, is less clear. So, is this just another flurry around a computer glitch or are these problems a sign of other trends in the market place?

No mugs. Amazon shoppers snapped into action. cheukiecfu, CC BY

The Amazon sneeze has unfortunately revealed the flip side of the Christmas spirit among consumers. Twitter and Facebook were awash with people boasting of the hundreds of bargains they had scooped up including items that they say they did not need. That doesn’t sound like the Christmas spirit. When you see a bargain due to a mis-pricing (and you can’t say it’s not obvious) and if it’s not something you want, should you buy it, or should you pass it by? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with snapping up a mis-priced bargain; but then crowing about it to the world?

Maybe these bargain hunters ignore the small-scale supplier and see the only loser as the big corporation, in this case Amazon. Or perhaps they see it as the invisible hand of Father Christmas at work, who knows? Business probably has to take its fair share of the blame. In the last month we have been encouraged to spend both in the High Street and on the internet like never before. The daily carousel of tempting tasty treats drifting through our inboxes must drive many of us to distraction, and if every now and we see a freebie and grab it, are we to blame? Retailers have been sending out daily emails before and since Black Friday and Cyber Monday luring us to spend with wave after wave of discounts. They have encouraged us to look for a flash sales bargain rather than simple, reasonably priced goods. Part of the problem with current consumer behaviour might just be a case of companies not being careful enough what they wish for.

Break in the chain

When businesses encourage consumption they have to be sure that they have the infrastructure and that it works. Interestingly, the Yodel issue is not new. When companies first started internet ordering there were masses of issues with parcels not arriving in time for Christmas. Businesses are required to forecast sales and they don’t always get it right. They encourage purchasing but they may be reluctant to invest in the infrastructure that is going to support a hoped-for sales increase. Unpredictable events like rain in the summer, or a mild winter can tilt sales alarmingly, and undermine such infrastructure investments.

Click and Collect. Shouldn’t make sense, but it’s working. Elliott Brown, CC BY

But it is not all bad news this Christmas for consumers or retailers. A recent report has shown that the growth in click-and-collect has benefited both. Click-and-Collect must be one of the biggest contradictions in internet shopping, you buy it online, yet you go to the shops to pick it up. Yes of course it was designed for people who couldn’t receive parcels at home, but now it’s also popular with people who are at home all day! Anyway, for retailers it means that consumers may spend more when they visit the retail parks to collect their parcels, and they can be sure that they actually get their parcels delivered.

I for one am pleased that the latest email messages I am getting remind me that I only have a couple of days left to order for Christmas. Of course these are swiftly followed by alerts telling me when the winter sale begins, but before we put the credit card away for a few days we shouldn’t forget that while businesses may be responsible for encouraging our consumption, we are citizens as well as consumers and that should mean we act ethically even when we see a bargain too good to be true.