A picture may be worth a thousand words, but spotting an apparent error on Amazon Prime Day can be worth thousands of dollars.
Photography enthusiasts mobbed the Internet this week after some people said they had received discounts as high as 99 percent on expensive cameras and equipment sold during Amazon’s 48-hour annual marketing event. Photography outlet PetaPixel, which first reported the news, identified customers claiming they had purchased cameras and lenses normally worth hundreds or thousands of dollars for only $94.48. The items included products manufactured by Sony, Fujifilm and Canon. Perhaps most notable was a Canon EF 800 mm f/5.6L IS Telephoto lens that usually retails for about $13,000.
The listings showed the products in question being sold by the e-commerce giant, not through a third party or the manufacturer, leaving open the possibilities that Amazon could have made a pricing error or created an Easter egg as a publicity stunt. Though the deal was available only briefly once it was shared on Slickdeals.net, several people across multiple sites posted photos of the equipment they had received at a highly discounted rate.
Amazon and the manufacturers did not respond to requests for comment. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In 2015, Amazon launched its first Prime Day, which has that name because discounts are only available to Prime subscribers. Since then, other retailers have offered their own discounts on Prime Day in an attempt to compete with Amazon, making the event one of the major drivers of e-commerce sales.
According to a report by the research firm Marketplace Pulse, this year’s Prime Day discounted 1.3 million products with average discounts of 25 to 30 percent. Compared with previous years, there was much more emphasis on exclusive deals on Amazon and products — particularly consumer electronics — sold by Amazon rather than third-party sellers.
E-commerce experts expressed certainty that the “deal” was indeed a mistake because of the enormous size of the discount involved and the fact that Amazon’s Prime Day marketing strategy focuses heavily on advertising the best deals. The suspected errors are a glimpse into how the world’s largest public company can pour billions of dollars into sophisticated algorithms that successfully handle hundreds of transactions per second and yet still make mistakes. That’s because, although sophisticated technology powers most of the company’s activities, there are still plenty of operations controlled by error-prone humans.
Elaine Kwon, who owns the e-commerce management firm Kwontified and previously worked at Amazon, said the task of creating Prime Day deals for Amazon-sold products falls to a relatively small group of people compared with the number of people tasked with reviewing all promotions and products with Prime Day. Even though Amazon spends significant resources preparing for the event, they “don’t have enough hands or tools to make sure it’s always accurate,” Kwon said.
Amazon has dealt with pricing-error issues for years, former executives said. The errors were so common that Amazon created a tool that alerts third-party sellers when a significant pricing change is made to ensure the change wasn’t made accidentally, said James Thomson, a partner at the brand consultancy Buy Box Experts and formerly a senior manager at Amazon. Those entities can also create a pricing “floor” so Amazon’s algorithms never price the product below that level. It’s unclear whether the same precautions are in place for Amazon’s own transactions.
Marketplace Pulse’s founder Juozas Kaziukėnas said the story of the camera equipment so captivated the public because people hope that they, too, will be able to find such an inconceivable discount. There’s an additional allure, too — that of the general public taking on a tech behemoth and winning.
“When the mistake is on Amazon, there’s definitely a sense of ‘[the buyer] deserves this; they’re such a big company,’” Kaziukėnas said.
But in the end, Goliath may come out on top: The money lost is a rounding error for Amazon, and the story is likely to drive additional buyers to the site, he said.