Buyers beware: Consumers don't always win disputes over product pricing mistakes

If something seems too good to be true it often isn't, seems to be the overall guidance from the Consumer Disputes Board.

The Consumer Disputes Board said that consumers should understand that a 10-euro price tag on an Alvar Aalto vase must be a mistake. Image: AOP

Consumers have occasionally found themselves on the wrong side of disputes involving pricing errors in online stores following a slew of rulings by the Consumer Disputes Board.

In one such example, last autumn design firm Iittala mistakenly placed the wrong price tag on an Aalto-designed vase and a set of Kartio glasses, offering them at a fraction of the actual price.

As a result, the Finnish design products were advertised for 10 euros and 51 cents respectively, when the normal prices would have been 140 euros for the Aalto vase and seven euros for a single Kartio glass.

A woman surfing the website for discounts found the items and placed an order for several pieces. Altogether she placed six orders for 14 Aalto vases and 22 Kartio glasses.

A few days later, Iittala cancelled the order, citing the pricing error. The woman complained about the cancellation to the Consumer Disputes Board.

In March, the board ruled in favour of the design firm, arguing that because the prices indicated an exceptional variation from the norm, the woman should have understood that there was a mistake and not a real discount campaign. The board further ruled that the quantity of products ordered suggested that the woman had grasped that the pricing was an error.

The board did not recommend any refund for the buyer.

Design product rules don't apply to other goods

The ruling suggests that consumers are expected to have some kind of understanding of price levels when it comes to design products -- such items are rarely sold at a 90-percent discount.

However deep discounts are possible when it comes to other goods. In such cases it is more difficult for buyers to estimate whether the price represents a real discount or whether it is a mistake.

This was the case around Christmas 2018, when a 200-euro Lego Star Wars set was priced at 30 euros in an online store. A consumer who ordered the set soon received a notification that the seller had cancelled the order due to a system error and an over-sized discount.

The Consumer Disputes Board ruled that the seller was obligated to sell the toy at the advertised price, because the discount was not unusually large. The webshop had similar products on sale for comparable prices, after all.

Gauging used product prices more difficult

Judging the appropriate prices of products is even more difficult when it comes to used items. In one example from autumn 2018, a cycle store accidentally sold a mountain bike worth thousands of euros for 475 euros. The item was a test model of a Kona-branded bike, whose recommended price brand new was 4,000 euros.

The bike store had advertised that the well-used test bikes "were now on sale for a good price".

However the seller did not intend to sell the bikes at such a deeply-discounted price. A few days after his purchase, the buyer was told that the price he paid was a mistake and that the actual price was 2,799 euros. The 475 euros the man paid was therefore considered a reservation fee. The store then cancelled the sale.

The buyer filed a complaint with the board, which called on the store to give the man a bike that corresponded to the item he had ordered at an agreed price. In its ruling the board said that because the item had been used, judging the correct price was trickier than usual for consumers.

Pricing errors common online

The Consumer Disputes Board said that pricing mistakes are quite common in online stores and that they are often caused by technical mistakes or human error.

Board chair Pauli Ståhlberg said that when it comes to flights or home electronics, consumers can usually trust that big discounts are real.

"On the other hand when it comes to products that are not usually on sale or offered as part of discount campaigns, a very low price should be cause for suspicion," he added in a statement.

In general, sales contracts are binding and sellers end up having to deliver products, even though the advertised prices are too low.

However consumers cannot demand that sellers close deals on basis of the prices that have been advertised.