When is a bargain not a bargain?

I was reading recently about a case in Mexico where a man spotted that a pair of gold and diamond Cartier earrings had mistakenly been listed on a website as $13 instead of $13,000. When Rogelio Villarreal placed the order, it went through – but Cartier tried to get out of the deal. After a month-long battle, Rogelio won and got the bargain of a lifetime (he gave the earrings to his mum, bless him).

That victory came as a result of Mexico’s consumer protection laws. But it couldn’t happen here… could it?

Every year I hear from loads of readers who have been on the verge of getting a great deal due to a mispriced item, only for the retailer to spot the error at the checkout and refuse to honour it.

Many people think that the price tag represents the final word on what an item should cost and the shop must sell you the goods at that price. Sadly that isn’t the case – but there are exceptions.

The main rule of thumb if you spot a mistake on the pricing of an item is the shop doesn’t have to honour it if they notice the error before the transaction is completed. So at the till (in reality or online) if the price error is discovered the shop can reinstate the original value.

You might want to have ago at haggling, but you’ll have more luck with the head office of the retailer than the poor person stuck on the till all day. If you decide to go down this avenue, then I’d photo the mispriced item so you can prove that the labelling was incorrectly applied. If you bought the item at the full price, you could ask for a refund of some of the money or a store credit – but it’s entirely at the shop’s discretion.

If the transaction goes through and the retailer contacts you to say that they’ve made a mistake then you should not have to pay back the difference unless they can establish that you knew the price was wrong at the time – which is tricky to prove. The business should also not attempt to debit your account for the difference, as you have not authorised this sum to be debited. If this happens, complain to your card provider and point out this is an ‘unauthorised transaction’.

But hold on! This advice relates more to shopping on the high street. What about online? This is where it gets complicated. When you make a purchase with a retailer, you enter in to a contract. As my fellow broadcast expert and legal specialist, Gary Rycroft advises: “In law a binding contract comprises four elements: offer, acceptance, consideration and intention to create legal relations. ‘Consideration’ is the price (or benefit) agreed as part of the contract, like the sum you agree to pay in return for goods”.

If a mispriced item – like those Cartier earrings – has been processed and confirmed then the contract has been made. The retailer sold an item at a specific price and you agreed to pay for it at that price.

Where a contact exists the business usually has to honour it if you’ve bought or received the goods though there may be exceptions in the T&Cs. That sounds rather complicated – but in most cases the retailer’s website will confirm the point the order has been accepted. If that’s the case, they should honour the price you paid.

Sometimes businesses will try to get around this by arguing they’ve made ‘an honest mistake’. But if you double down and threaten to ‘enforce the contract’ there’s a good chance you could win if it goes to court.

One final warning though, if word gets around that a website has mispriced certain goods and loads of people rush to buy them, then you are all aware that the business has made an error and chances are the retailer won’t have to cough up.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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