Avoiding costly online errors Experts say proofread, test – then proofread and test again For all of its benefits, e-commerce also has a host of high-tech problems. Take what happened at office supplies cataloger/retailer Staples.com. A few months ago, a system glitch enabled some shoppers to pay one cent for a $60 briefcase that was supposed to only be given away with an undisclosed minimum purchase.

Shannon Lapierre, a spokeswoman for the Framingham, MA-based Staples.com, the online division of office supplies cataloger/retailer Staples, would not disclose the specifics of the error, except to say “it was a back-end system glitch, and we pulled all of the orders aside and stopped most of them from going out.” She added that Staples.com immediately e-mailed the customers who ordered the item to inform them of the mistake.

Staples.com isn’t the only online merchant to suffer a pricing snafu. At online general merchant Buy.com, a coupon meant to offer buyers $50 off any order of $500 or more actually offered $50 off any order of $50 or more. (To add injury to insult, the company hadn’t even released the coupon yet; a shopper using a crawler found it while monitoring the site, and posted its code on a Website.) About 4,500 orders were placed with the code for the discount in one day, before Buy.com discovered the error. And on July 28 and July 29, numerous items at Amazon.com’s online toy store were inadvertently sold at up to 50% off.

An ounce of prevention The recent problems that some online catalogers have encountered should be considered “a wake-up call to retailers to pay attention to details,” says Julie M. Sautter, president/founder of BodyLines, a Belmont, CA-based swimsuit cataloger that mails the Curves, Bay Wear, and Thrills catalogs. “This is obviously a nightmare for these retailers, which could result in losses, poor customer relations, and much confusion.”

Sautter says her company has never had problems with online promotions or pricing, and she takes measures to ensure it stays that way by proofing the site’s content and testing the program coding. “We have a Webmaster who checks and double-checks the accuracy of our information before our promotions are implemented,” she says.

Florencia Palmaz, president of Haute at Home Cuisine, a San Antonio, TX-based cataloger of gourmet foods, agrees that it’s imperative to have as many people as possible look at the site for any mistakes. “Apart from me and another person, we have a third party run beta-testing on our site to make sure that all the coding works.”

Indeed, says Peter Ripley, Webmaster at New York-based Web design agency AGA, catalogers should “test, test, test” their sites. “Build in time for testing and fixing – lots of it,” Ripley says. “And use a test environment that simulates the real-world e-commerce environment.”

Ripley adds that you must test for content as well as functionality: “Don’t just have your system engineers test your systems.” In addition to rigorous testing for system glitches, proofreading your site extensively for errors could prevent pricing and promotions mishaps, Ripley says.

Some catalogers cite their experience in proofreading print catalogs as an advantage they have over dot-com competitors. “We’ve been lucky and careful enough to avoid any major glitches,” says Lawrence Becker, director of Internet publishing for Charlottesville, VA-based consumer electronics cataloger Crutchfield. “It’s an advantage our print background affords us – we have pretty rigorous proofing processes, and we’ve brought that culture online.”

The error aftermath But with the Net barely past its infancy, few marketers are immune from technical glitches. And how online catalogers handle problems makes all the difference in customer relations. Bringier McConnell, president of French Country Living, a Sterling, VA-based cataloger of home decor, believes that in pricing error situations, the customer should get the price at which he ordered – unless the error will cost the marketer an appeciable amount of money, as would be the case if a $250 item was erroneously listed at $25.

Others believe the marketer should explain the mistake, and that the customers should honor that explanation. “Depending on the company’s size and its finances, most customers would understand if they couldn’t receive merchandise that was erroneously priced,” says Mallory Weil, executive vice president of Internet at New York-based Best Cellars, marketer of wines and related merchandise. Weil says customers usually know when they’re benefiting from an obvious pricing or promotion mistake. “They know they shouldn’t be doing it, and they will understand if the order is cancelled,” she says. Besides, “you really don’t want the customers who are just trying to get something for free.”

If you aren’t going to honor the erroneous price, you should at least offer customers a gift certificate or a discount on future purchases, says BodyLines’ Sautter. She also suggests that catalogers place a disclaimer on their Websites as a form of insurance in the event of a pricing glitch. “Disclaimers are definitely needed to protect the retailer for misprints, just as you have in printed material,” she says. In fact, most catalogers have opted to refuse or cancel a sale at some time, for a myriad of reasons. “We reserve the right to change the prices or policies on our site whenever we want,” says Haute at Home’s Palmaz.

To err is human All of the catalogers contacted by Catalog Age stress the importance of double-checking their Websites for accuracy and functionality. But they also concede that human error is unavoidable. “The Internet is still fairly new, and many times the people who work on coding sites are not familiar with the intricacies of the content,” Palmaz says.

And at least typos and pricing problems are relatively quick and easy to fix on a Web catalog, as opposed to in a print book that’s already in the mail. While Palmaz says the Haute at Home Website has so far been glitch-free, the catalog has not. “We lost quite a bit of money on one item last year,” she says. The company, which sells meats and food at flat prices, had assumed that a certain cut of meat weighed one pound. “When we received it, it was cut at three pounds but was priced in the book at one pound.” Palmaz says the company honored the listed price, and “ate” the cost of the mistake.

Capitol Hill has had a busy summer as far as Internet-related issues are concerned. By a 427-1 vote on July 18, the House of Representatives passed an antispam bill, H.R. 3113, that would prevent commercial e-mail messages from being sent to recipients who have asked to be removed from the sender’s distribution list.

The bill would also prohibit companies from e-mailing messages with inaccurate return addresses, which make it impossible for recipients to unsubscribe from mailing lists.

For its part, the U.S. Senate is considering considerably weaker antispam legislation that, unlike the House bill, doesn’t give spam recipients the right to sue companies that send the messages.

Additionally, on July 20 the House added two amendments addressing privacy concerns to a fiscal year 2001 appropriations bill, H.R. 4871. The first amendment would mandate that government agencies discontinue their use of cookie technology to collect information about visitors to their Websites until a uniform government privacy policy has been implemented. The second amendment would require government agencies to disclose to Congress and the public how personal information is collected from Website visitors.

Moreover, at press time the Federal Trade Commission was negotiating a few provisions on an Internet privacy policy with industry leaders such as members of the Network Advertising Initiative, including DoubleClick and AdKnowledge. The provisions specify that users be given a chance to opt out of data collection (on their Web navigation) as well as be able to decide whether to have their names linked to their customer data. Also, companies would have to request permission before merging customer data files with information about their online surfing habits. No deadline has been set for these negotiations, however.

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