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$12.50 tires from Walmart? Web mistake is customer’s good luck

Updated: July 29, 2012 9:12PM

Dear Fixer: With winter finally here, I was reminded of my need for new tires. I searched the Web and was delighted to see a deal that was too good to be true: tires for $12.50 each! It was on, a huge company known for its deep discounts. Maybe, I thought, this is some special deal and I am the lucky one.

I must admit, the thought that this could be a mistake did cross my mind — but I figured either way, they would have to honor the price. So, I made a purchase that day, Jan. 14, for eight tires. The order went though. I was elated and felt that the universe was on my side. Hours later, I checked the site and the price was still $12.50 and even hours more it was still that price. I received an email that day confirming my order.

A day later, the price went up to $135. Then, on Jan. 17, I got an email saying my order had shipped. I figured they would have to honor an order that was paid for and shipped.

Later on Jan. 17, I got emails saying my order was “lost or damaged” and they were processing a refund. It is clearly a lie that the order was “lost or damaged.”

I complained, and they said there is a disclaimer that states they can do whatever they want with an order made on their site. However, there is no box to check at the time of purchase or any clear wording that there is a disclaimer.

Karim McCall, Evanston

Dear Karim: Sometimes a company doing the legal thing and a company doing the right thing aren’t the same. Luckily in your case, Walmart ended up doing right by you (we’ll get to that happy resolution in a moment). But first, a word about pricing errors and what a consumer can expect.

Most websites have language buried in their “terms and conditions” that lets them off the hook in case of a pricing error. And this makes sense. A couple years ago, some hapless soul at Best Buy accidentally posted $9.99 as the price of a 52-inch HDTV. You can imagine the pandemonium as online shoppers bought scores of these TVs — regularly priced at about $1,600 — in hopes of selling them for big bucks elsewhere. Best Buy canceled the purchases and refunded the money, arguing that it was obviously a pricing error.

And we gotta’ say, it’s kind of uncool for consumers to snap up an obvious error like that to try to make a profit.

Your case was a little less clear. For comparison, The Fixer once took a pair of jeans to a store register, expecting to pay the posted price, when the register rang them up as $1.50. Yes, a dollar fifty — they were on some super clearance because they weren’t being stocked anymore.

Tires for $12.50 is definitely more plausible than a $1,600 television for 10 bucks.

Also bothersome was the email claiming your order was “lost or damaged” when that didn’t seem to be the case.

We took your problem to Walmart’s PR people, not really knowing what to expect. They said that when the mistake was discovered and your order canceled, someone accidentally coded the cancellation as “lost in transit.” That’s why you got that puzzling email. The good news is they agreed to honor the $12.50 price by sending you two Walmart gift cards totaling $828, which you can use to purchase the tires at the current price.

We also talked to the folks at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the local Better Business Bureau. BBB President Steve Bernas said merchants’ policies typically protect them, unless it can be proven that there was a purposeful bait-and-switch. But he said it’s worth filing a complaint.

The AG’s office said that generally, if a consumer pays for an item and money is accepted, a contract exists. (Though we’ve heard conflicting opinions elsewhere about whether providing a credit card number is the same as making payment.)

The AG’s office says this sort of problem is an excellent candidate for mediation through their office. And, they point out, it really does boil down to good customer service: Why would a reputable merchant want to anger a customer and hurt its reputation over its own dumb mistake?

Getting the runaround about a consumer problem? Tell it to The Fixer at If you don’t have a computer, you can mail a brief description of your problem, along with your name, address and telephone number, to: The Fixer, The Courier-News, 495 N. Commons Drive, Suite 200, Aurora, IL 60504. Don’t send original documents. Due to the large volume of submissions, The Fixer can’t make personal replies. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

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