Did Best Buy Do Itself a PR Favor With Pricing Error?

$9.99 TV Sparked Backlash in the Blogosphere, but Also Got Retailer Lots of Free Attention

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Health-care reform? A Taliban cease-fire? Dick Cheney unloading on George Bush?

The hottest story on the web today was none of the above. Burning up the blogosphere and Twitter was the remarkable "pricing error" that occurred on the website for electronics retailer Best Buy, which -- for a little while, anyway -- had a 52-inch Samsung high-definition TV listed for $9.99.

The mistake, however, has led to a flood of free PR for Best Buy -- good, bad or indifferent.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of customers jumped at the initial deal when it first came up online early in the morning, using the web to send e-mails, blog posts and tweets to others. One man even posted his receipt at go-digital.net, which showed that his credit-card purchase, including the price of the TV, tax and shipping, came to a whopping $86. Another customer even tried to purchase two of the Samsung sets.

It was an error, of course, which Best Buy quickly reacted to less than an hour after orders started rolling in. It sent statements to the news media, sent e-mail messages to customers who purchased the TVs, and used its Twitter account to alert others, apologizing for the honest mistake but making certain people knew in no uncertain terms that the company would not be honoring the $9.99 deal.

"BEST BUY! YOU @#$! I bought that Samsung 52" HD tv for $9.99 Fair and Square How dare you cancell [sic] my order! Down with Best Buy! Burn em down," wrote KermitLGonzalez on Twitter.

"So people REALLY thought getting a Samsung 52-inch HDTV for $9.99 at best buy was NOT a typo and thought they'd honor the price ... idiots!" tweeted andb707.

Yet in the aftermath, the numerous posts and tweets have brought about unintentional PR -- and many savvy bloggers even commented about the PR aspect of the story.

Bad PR vs. sales loss
On the techie site ZDNet, Michael Kelly posted, "The question Best Buy has to ask themselves is whether the bad PR is worse than the loss on the sales. Apparently they feel they can handle the PR backlash more than the losses on these sales. Which is probably right, because I can't imagine people declaring war on Best Buy for not honoring what anyone with common sense would recognize as a mistake."

One Twitter user, Brianmarsh -- who actually runs a search-engine-optimization company in Dallas -- tweeted, "Was this a mistake? Or a very cleverly crafted PR ploy? This didn't cost Best Buy a dime and they showed up on every news station in America."

Tweeted dave1102: "it's a nice way to get free PR! Get everyone talking about Best Buy and then revoke the deal."

How the pricing error came to be is unknown. The first thought was that perhaps the TV was on sale for $999 and it was a decimal point error, but the actual retail price is more than $3,000 and it was supposed to be on sale for $1,799.

Others felt Best Buy could have done itself an even greater PR favor by offering a modest amount in a gift certificate or store credit to those who ordered the TV.

"Mistakes will happen, but if it was my store I'd have offered the folks who did order them an extra $100 off the sale price just for the sake of customer relations," posted keepu on zdnet.com.

Jamie O'Donnell, co-founder of the San Francisco-based firm SEO-PR, said this is the state of public relations in the social media era.

"The blogosphere is PR today," Mr. O'Donnell told AdAge.com. "What gets created in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and how that resonates to audiences is PR. I guarantee that many corporations today are going in, searching around, and seeing who the opinion leaders are on the web."

But PR experts agreed that, in this case, Best Buy was correct in its response.

"This was such an obvious mistake, I don't see any PR harm coming at all," said Alan Caruba, president of the South Orange, N.J.-based PR firm The Caruba Organization. "Other than giving Best Buy a little exposure, this story has a life expectancy of maybe 24 hours, at best."

Mr. O'Donnell said he agreed. "Best Buy is getting some PR out of this," he said, "but overall it's just a brushfire."

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