Sunday, January 05, 2014

Judge Fines Overstock.com $6.8 Million, Rules It Needs a 'Price Coach'

Sam Antar's blog is out this weekend with an item describing how a California judge has slammed Overstock.com with a $6.8 million penalty for consumer fraud.

Ruling on a lawsuit brought by a consortium of California district attorneys, the suit contends that Overstock used phony price comparisons in claiming that it offered customers a bargain.

What's interesting about this case, I think, is how Overstock worked overtime to head off the bad news. In a TV commercial (see below) featuring Mike Ditka, the "price coach," the company claimed that it "price checked over 500,000 products a week" to make sure customers got the best prices.


But Judge Wynne S. Carvill, a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, didn't buy that malarkey. He ruled that Overstock systematically overstated the amount of savings customers could get by buying at Overstock.

To make matters worse for the company, it not only has to pay the fine, but is likely to be assessed attorneys fees and investigative costs, which could run into the millions, and it will be subject to an injunction requiring Overstock to provide proper price comparisons.

That's a real "price coach," not an actor playing one.

The irony is that customers don't need a price coach to find out if they're getting a good deal at Overstock. All they need is Google or a free browser add-on called Priceblink, which automatically compares prices at a variety of online vendors.

Anyway, it's not over for Overstock. I'm sure the company will appeal, throwing more good money after bad. Sam reported that last quarter "the company reported a $2 million increase in legal fees resulting in large part from the 'defense of a case brought by district attorneys in eight California counties.'" That's dumb, I guess, but not as dumb as the consumers who actually buy there expecting the best deal.

Just today I was looking for a cheap corded phone. At Amazon.com an AT&T 210 corded phone costs $9.34. At Overstock the price is $13.59. OK, that stinks, $4 more than Amazon. That's bad, but what's worse is this:  

Save $12.23 (47%) Compare $25.82
 Yep, that's what it says. $25.82-- $7 above the list price, which, as the Amazon listing points out, is $18.79.



 When you click on "compare" you get the following gobbledygook:
What is "Compare"?
The term "Compare" means the price at which, in the reasonable judgment of our experienced buyers, manufacturers or suppliers, the item may be sold in the U.S. on an everyday basis. Other vendors sometimes refer to this as the "retail price" exclusive of special promotions or sale prices, at which the item might be offered at retail stores and at customary retail mark-up. In many instances, though not all, the "Compare" prices reflects a price suggested by the manufacturer or supplier of these goods, without reference to actual retail sales and may amount to an estimation of a retail offer price in accordance with standard industry practices. It may also include a reasonable average estimated shipping cost, if ordinary shipping costs have been discounted or eliminated.

We make no representation that the products have been sold or offered at the "Compare" price, and the price may or may not reflect the average or prevailing market price in any area on any particular day. For some items listed as a set, the "Compare" price may be an aggregate of the suggested or estimated prices for all items included in the set. Actual retail sales in your area may substantially differ from the "Compare" price. Moreover, the nature of internet sales on a national or international basis, and the fact that we deal in overstocks, closeouts, end-of-season, and unique items that may be sold only on Overstock.com, precludes our ability to know whether our products are sold at the "Compare" price at any particular location or time by other vendors.

You may choose to use the "Compare" price as an approximate guide to what you would or could pay for these items in other locations, at other times, or under other conditions, including full retail price.

Translation: "ain't nobody selling it for $25.82." A Priceblink price search bears that out.

When Overstock says "the nature of internet sales on a national or international basis, and the fact that we deal in overstocks, closeouts, end-of-season, and unique items that may be sold only on Overstock.com, precludes our ability to know whether our products are sold at the 'Compare' price at any particular location or time by other vendors..."--that's just sheer ca-ca. A quick Internet search, with or without Priceblink, shows quickly that the "compare at" price is as phony as a $3 bill.

Yep, Overstock customers sure could use a "price coach," though I don't think there's much the "coach" would say except, "shop somewhere else." 


© 2014 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
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My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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