Or can the store owner force me to pay the full amount when it discovers the error?
Back in July of 2009, JB HiFi had a bad day. It accidentally advertised a $3,000 LCD television on its website for $15. What it meant to do was put up a notice saying that the television was 15 percent off. However, a percentage symbol accidentally got turned into a dollar symbol, the deal got posted on the website, and within minutes of the website being updated it was smashed with people trying to get an order in before JB noticed their mistake.
In the case of one enterprising individual, he managed to order 65 televisions before JB shut their website down temporarily to prevent further orders going through.
JB, once it realised its error, quickly fixed the price online, reopened its website, and spent the rest of the day contacting their customers to tell them the price was an error and their purchase of the $15 LCD television would not be honoured. Many customers objected, but JB stood firm and pointed to a term on its website that said any sale of any item purchased on its website was not final until JB agreed to ship that good for the stated price. JB never agreed to ship the television for $15, and so was legally entitled to reverse each customer’s purchase.
While JB had the legal right to do this, it was a close call. If JB had shipped even one television at that price, the result for it might have been very, very different.
Our shopping laws say that if you, as a customer, come across an incorrectly priced good in a store, then whether you can buy that good for the incorrect price, can get it for free, or must pay the correct price is a matter for the individual store and its sales policy.
For physical stores, this is usually sorted out at the counter at the time of the sale. If the store agrees to sell you a good at an incorrect, lower price and you pay that amount then you do not have to pay anything more, even if the store hits you up for the missing amount immediately after the sale is complete and even if you knew you were getting the good for a lower price and say nothing about it. For online stores that sell you something for an incorrect lower price, the general rule is that once you have paid that price and the good has been shipped to you the store cannot cancel the sale and demand you pay them the extra amount (even if you are yet to receive your item in the post).
However, the law does give a store the chance to correct its mistake. A store is entitled to correct an incorrectly priced good and require full payment from the customer at any time during the sale process, right up until the final payment is made and the good handed over to the customer (or, in the case of an online store, up to the time that the good is shipped to the customer).
What does this all mean for you, as a savvy shopper with an eye for a bargain? While a store might choose to accept a lower, incorrect price for a good to keep a customer happy (particularly for small pricing errors), it is under no legal obligation to honour such a price unless and until the sale is finalised.
Luckily for us consumers, stores do not have all the power when it comes to pricing and errors in pricing. There is a very big difference between a store pricing a good incorrectly but innocently and refusing to honour the incorrect price, and a store deliberately using low prices to mislead consumers into thinking they are getting a bargain when, in fact, they are not.
Our consumer protection laws (remember those from earlier in this book, when I talked – OK, sobbed – about Mouse Trap?) impose fines and other forms of penalties for stores that deliberately mislead customers on the price of a good.
For example, a store selling giant plush poo emoji toys (I don’t know why I am using this as an example) might put a big sign on the display of poos (ah, now I know why I am using it as an example – I wanted to write the phrase ‘display of poos’) saying ‘WAS $100, NOW $2.’ The intention of a sign like this is to encourage people to buy a plushy poo, by enticing them with a heavily discounted price. But if the poo never sold for $100 then the store has deliberately misled customers though ‘bait’ pricing, and it could face huge fines and, perhaps even more significantly for it, very bad publicity from people complaining about the price of poos.