On Tuesday I received a message from a friend pointing me to an item within Tesco Direct’s website. I clicked the link and was welcomed with a 64GB iPad 3 costing only £49.99.

The person who messaged me had just completed his order and showed me the confirmation email. With that, I set off to buy two (why not?).

Within three minutes the website was down (I was on the delivery stage of the order). 20 minutes after that the site was back up and I could not proceed. I was so annoyed! I could have bought two iPads for £99.98!

An hour later the BBC had already published the story.

Please note: this is purely conspiracy theory, I am not actually accusing Tesco but merely observing a possibility…

The Terms that matter

There was one extract that caught my attention, the BBC’s observation of the website terms and conditions:

If, by mistake, we have under priced an item, we will not be liable to supply that item to you at the stated price, provided that we notify you before we despatch the item to you. In those circumstances, we will notify the correct price to you so you can decide whether or not you wish to order the item at that price.

Tesco noted this mishap as an “IT error”. However, with this note coupled with the term above make Tesco completely protected. That’s why it’s ok if it doesn’t honour any purchases.

The result of the “error”

Here’s what happened: the item was published and people started to notice. It was observed online through the wonderful media that is social networking. The BBC article was published within the hour and wasn’t until after that that the error was corrected. This was enough to grab media attention.

However, I want to make one observation which was something I did at the time.

I visited Tesco Direct’s website. I added the iPad3 to my basket. When I realised I couldn’t complete the purchase I decided to have a browse in the shop for other items. I wonder how many other people did that.

I wonder how much traffic was gained from this error, what their change in conversion was, how many more completed transactions there were, and so on.

Taking this theory further – the next day…

Just as we all woke up in the UK people were still talking about the iPad but hold on, another story has just emerged. Tesco is now increasing the retirement age to 67 (reports the BBC and Guardian). This story was originally published on various news sites websites the same day.

However, this story grew larger than the iPad story as social media clocked onto it. By 11am on March 14 the retirement age story had overtaken the iPad story. Odd.

Again?!

So, now Tesco seems to have more media attention on this retirement age story. I guess it should, it affects more people and is more newsworthy.

People were still talking about the iPad though. Well, there’s only one way this could be shoved further away. It’s March 15, two days after the iPad error and Tesco UK’s CEO decides to resign. This story now dominates the other two previous stories.

Far fetched? Of course. Or is it?

Fine. This is a wild accusation to implicate that the iPad error was made intentionally with the knowledge that two days later it would be on the backburner. I’m sure it was a mistake.

However, think about this from an online perspective:

  1. When it comes to adding new items, especially something as high profile as a new iPad on an extremely popular online store, ensure the item is checked and double checked before it’s published.
  2. When published why leave it over an hour, coincidentally just as the story breaks on BBC News, to realise that an error has occurred.
  3. Were there any other items affected by the same IT error or was it solely added to one of the most sought after products of the year?

Another thing to note is a search result for “ipad 3”, which I don’t need to look into Google Insights to know it’s a popular search term at the moment:

The Mirror’s story about the error is at position four, just above the fold for me. The title lets me assume that “shoppers won’t be getting them” but still, the META description seems good from a CTR point of view.

Negative brand exposure? Nah

I’m sure that, if this was a well laid out plan, that there is an extreme risk of negative brand exposure. Let me ask you this – are you going to stop shopping at Tesco because it incorrectly priced one item online? Probably not.

It should be noted that, after a similar online pricing error, M&S actually honoured the orders placed by customers. It had wrongly priced 3D TVs at £199 instead of £1,099. M&S offered vouchers initially before bowing to an online petition from customers. 

Tesco’s visits seemed to have shot up in the past week. Of course we have to assume that a lot of people will be pre-ordering the iPad at the correct price, but this jump?

One thing I would love to know is how much profit or loss was made as a result of this error. The iPads at that price will not be honoured so no money is lost there. What do you think?

Was this a convenient error or a fantastic strategy from an online genius?