It happened again last week: another big-time gaffe at a retailer's Web site. This time it was English catalogue company Argos, whose online operation offered 21-inch Sony TV sets for £3 (about $7.50) instead of the £299.99 they were supposed to go for. It was a simple glitch - a rounding error, a couple of zeroes dropped - but nobody at Argos noticed the problem until bargain-happy Britons had ordered more than £1 million worth of TVs.
Now Argos argues it doesn't have to ship the TVs because it never confirmed the orders.
Some English legal beagles say not so fast; the company faces possible lawsuits for false advertising. And - far worse - its reputation now stinks with thousands of pissed-off customers.
This kind of blunder could only happen on the Web. Because the Web is the only place where human sanity checks have been stripped out of retailing, replaced by . . . well, nothing.
It couldn't happen in an ordinary, low-tech store. Even the dimmest checkout clerk would notice insanely low prices. It couldn't happen by mail order or over the phone, where there are always people in the loop between customers and the order-entry system. The first time anyone tried buying a £3 TV, a $7.99 computer or a $98 car, the foul-up would be found. Sorry, folks - no sale.
But with database-generated, fully automated Web shopping, who needs salespeople? So one keystroke gone awry can automatically drive a deep-cut discount onto your virtual showroom. And you can easily sell a million dollars of goods before someone spots the problem.
So how to protect against this kind of garbage-in-garbage-out craziness?
Easy: just add a moderately experienced salesperson or two to the Web site's quality-control team.
Call them sanity checkers. Every time a change is made to the site - new product, special offer, design change - your low-tech, merchandise-knowledgeable QC person vets it immediately to make sure it's right.
Insane prices, impossible product descriptions and idiotic formatting will pop right out at a sanity checker. So will more subtle things that make your site hard to navigate and use, like cluttered screens or pages that require constant scrolling.
And between changes, a sanity checker can monitor the site, watching for slowdowns, lockups and other problems. It just takes one set of sales-trained eyes to make your Web store better on a day-to-day basis - and every now and then save you from truly embarrassing (and potentially very costly) screw-ups.
So what's the catch? It's this: the very idea of a sanity checker is as politically incorrect as they come.
Adding a sanity checker makes your IT quality-control people look like they're not doing their job. It suggests that the fancy database-driven Web-commerce system isn't as good as you made it sound. It means adding a warm body (and not even a tech-head's warm body) to what was supposed to be a fully automated system.
Which is exactly why it's your IT shop - not marketing or manage- ment or consultants - that should be campaigning for a sanity checker.
Face it, if anyone else starts promoting this idea, it makes IT look bad. Sloppy. Incompetent.
But if the idea comes from you, you can spin it as a shining example of a commerce-savvy IT shop going after what's best for the business, even if that means a low-tech solution.
Who says we can't play the game too?
So start pushing for that sanity checker. Otherwise, when the next big e-commerce gaffe happens, yours could be the Web site that's gone insane.
Frank Hayes has written about IT for 20 years. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org