Walmart's website glitch that led to items worth $600 selling for $9 was available to only a select few who found out about it. With the upcoming holiday shopping season, how do you make sure you don't miss a crazy sale again, whether it's a technical glitch or bona fide drastic discount?
Social media was ablaze over Walmart's website glitch early Wednesday morning as netizens frantically posted on sites like Twitter, wondering whether the deals were too good to be true.
"We call social media 'gossip media.' That's all social media is," said Mark Ellwood, author of the new book "Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World." "It's gossiping you're allowed to do. If you think of social media as a car, deals are the perfect fuel."
Walmart later clarified the site had a technical error and declined to say how many customers bought mispriced items. But the company's website garnered an unusually large amount of traffic.
Searches for the term "Walmart electronics" on Yahoo spiked 127 percent on Wednesday. Other chart-busting search terms on Yahoo included "Walmart glitch" and "Walmart error," Yahoo said, after receiving little to no searches with those phrases in the weeks prior. Of those searching for "Walmart glitch," Yahoo estimates that 63 percent came from females.
And while Walmart tends to have a healthy presence on Twitter, with about 30,000 tweets on Monday mentioning the retailer, that number climbed to at least 35,000 on Wednesday.
With the abundance of online deal information and the ability to use brick and mortar stores for "showrooming," the reward of saving money is "highly motivating," said Justin Smith, chief innovation officer and director of the digital underground for full-service brand agency Doner.
"People are shopping harder before they are willing to spend. We already know they have that behavior," he said, noting that's in part why anyone can catch wind of the hottest deal.
But while word of a hot deal or website glitch can spread like wildfire, they can cause extensive damage for both customers and businesses. One such company that disappeared into the ashes was Vyrl Mkt, which distributed coupons on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and other social networking sites. The firm, based in San Jose, Calif., famously went out of business in 2008 because its coupons became too viral, to the chagrin of Vyrl Mkt's customers: the companies offering the discounts. Customers shopping online are also vulnerable to spam and phishing scams.
"The problem is that discounts and social media are as combustible as Lindsay Lohan and a bottle of vodka," Ellwood said. "They are tailor made to be bad for each other."
In an ideal world, a resourceful entrepreneur would create a service to inform deal-hungry shoppers of glitches like Walmart's. But such a service doesn't exist, at least according to experts such as Justin Noll, director of client experience with AlertBot, which tracks website crashes on the top 100 e-commerce sites.
"It would be hard for a service to detect that a price isn't what it should be," Noll said. "It would be very hard and costly to scan the website. You'd have to go to one product page and compare it to others to see if they're really off. For someone to do that for free for consumers, it would be a costly venture."
And as Ellwood notes, "Prices on the Internet go up and as fast as hemlines."
The best approach to spotting discounts quickly is using free sale alert subscription services, including apparel trackers Shopstyle.com and Shop It To Me, to inform you about price cuts on specific items you've tagged previously. Shop It To Me tracks over 100 online retailers.
If a retailer's site had a glitch sale on an apparel item that a Shop It To Me member wanted, the company said it would alert the member through its normal course of business but it wouldn't flag the item as mismarked.
"If a retailer lists an inaccurate sale, we will fetch it," said Shop It To Me spokeswoman Marjorie Cader. "If an item is mistakenly listed as free we won't show it, as it's likely inaccurate.
Another service, Hukkster, allows you to track more than 500 Web stores, including Amazon.com, Macy's and Target. Hukkster's more than 125,000 users have downloaded a "hukk" button to their browser that allows them to easily tag products to follow.
"There's an undeniable thrill that shoppers get out of the hunt and scoring a great deal," said Hukkster co-founder Erica Bell. "When a user receives a sale alert from Hukkster on a product they've been coveting, there's an immediate emotional reaction because it's often an unexpected surprise in their inbox. We get to experience these shoppers' reactions across social media platforms day in and day out as users tweet or post about the great deals they score using our platform, but it takes a serious discount to trigger the level of virality that ensued from the Walmart phenomenon."
But not everyone wants to spread the love about an amazing deal they snagged.
Bell has noticed that Hukkster users love to tweet or post about a good deal, or the excitement around receiving a sale alert, but rarely mention the specific product.
"This mimics the 'Targét' movement where we all love getting our hands on great discounted products at Target and might share the secret of our finds with friends but won't blast it out to our entire social network," Bell said.
Like Hukkster, PoachIt users can download a button, but that button shows if an item you're about to purchase has a cheaper deal elsewhere.
Shoppers receiving alerts from sites like Hukkster have to move quickly though. You can receive an email alert for a 20 percent discount on a Nanette Lepore swimsuit that will sell out by the next day if not earlier.
Whether you're going to tell the world about your steal of the century or keep it to yourself, ShopSmart deputy editor Jody Rohlena suggests shoppers stay on top of daily deals by signing up for alerts from Yipit.com rather than getting dozens of emails from too many services. And you can use the daily deal sites' customization tools, "so they don't waste your time telling you about deals you don't want," she said. She also suggests the RetailMeNot app, which has the most coupons and codes for tons of retailers.
Ellwood suggests creating a second Twitter account that only follows your favorite retailers or sale news Twitter handles so it's easier to track deals.
But if an e-commerce site or airline makes a huge mistake, what are the chances they'll honor it? On Wednesday night, Walmart said it would cancel the orders on mispriced items, giving those customers a full refund plus a $10 e-gift card for Walmart stores or Walmart.com.
Consumers should note that an advertisement is not a contract, said Tod Marks, senior projects editor with Consumer Reports.
"That's important to remember," he said, adding that a retailer's fine print, or terms and conditions, usually makes clear that they are not responsible for typos and other pricing errors.
Here are some recent e-commerce glitches that led to amazingly low prices.
On Nov. 6, Walmart experienced a technical error that led to mispriced items on its website, including marking items both much higher and much lower than their retail value. Customers thought they were getting the deal of a lifetime, but the company later said it was notifying customers who ordered items with the "wide discrepancy in pricing" that their orders were canceled and they will be given a refund. The company told customers it will send them within five business days a $10 e-gift card for Walmart stores and Walmart.com.
Read More: Why Walmart Canceled Mispriced Item Orders
Airlines have advertised ridiculously low prices for a brief period of time on their websites. Last month, some lucky United Airlines customers snagged round-trip flights for as low as $5. These are known as fat-finger fares.
"In this case, the carrier ate the loss. But got a lot of good publicity in return," Marks said.
The website allowed customers to get round-trip flights from Newark, N.J., to Dublin, Ireland, for $49.40. The company had a similar problem in September. Both times, the company honored the pricing glitch.
|Cyberguys on Amazon.com|
Recently, catalog and Web retailer Cyberguys had the difficult decision to honor customers' orders after an incorrect price list was submitted to Amazon.com.
Computer routers worth $1,300 were sold for $13 and hard drives worth $300 were sold for $3. The company decided to accept the $28,000 loss and honor the orders.
Bucking the trend, Best Buy said it would not honor a $9.99 HDTV sale listing back in Aug. 2009. The 52-inch Samsung flat-screen HDTV retailed for $3,399.99. The company had intended to discount the TV to $1,799.99.
Smith said glitches are always going to happen, but what separates good companies from the bad are how they respond to them.
"That's going to be the difference between the flash in a pan or whether it becomes a social media death spiral," Smith said. "One thing retailers need to do right now, especially as we approach the incredibly important shopping season, is have a disaster preparedness plan in place and know how to respond."