February 23, 2001, 9:15 AM — While there may be no such thing as a free lunch, some Staples.com shoppers were recently treated to almost-free attache cases.
A pricing glitch at Staples.com last weekend allowed an unknown number of lucky bargain hunters to get more than they bargained for -- $40 attache cases that were being sold for just one penny apiece.
At that price, some shoppers bought 50 or more cases -- some to sell for a profit on eBay, others to give as gifts.
Tom Nutile, a spokesman for Framingham, Mass.-based Staples.com, confirmed the pricing mistake and blamed human error.
"Because of a typographical error on Staples.com, a number of customers received an attache case for a penny that [was] supposed to sell for $39.99," Nutile said. "We posted the incorrect price late Saturday and discovered it on Sunday.
"A number of orders went through and were delivered," he said. "But we stopped a number of orders and alerted those customers by e-mail that we wouldn't deliver their order, and they wouldn't be charged for them."
He declined to say how many attache cases were sold at a penny apiece or how much the mistake would cost the company.
Word of the glitch spread like wildfire on Web sites such as FatWallet.com, a Monroe, Wis.-based site that alerts consumers to discounts at various online stores and provides a forum for consumers to share information.
Buyers bragged online about their good fortune, saying they didn't even have to pay for shipping -- and noting that some of the cases were for sale on eBay.
"I just got my order of 15, total was $8.11 including shipping and handling and tax," one unidentified shopper wrote online. "That makes each bag 54 cents. The bags are essentially junk, but for 54 cents you can't complain."
David Cooperstein, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said Staples.com wasn't legally obligated to honor an incorrect price.
"It would be more of a moral obligation, not a legal one," he said. "And the fact that they don't honor the prices creates a lot of bad publicity."
Nonetheless, he said, Staples.com should have systems to catch such errors before consumers see them.
"Incorrect prices are common occurrences . . . because companies don't have content management systems in place to catch any errors before they're posted. For example, the system could be set up to flag any item whose price goes below a certain dollar amount, or if it is listed for 50% less than its [normal] price," he said.
"Certainly any item that was priced at one penny [should sound an alert]," he said.