Over New Year’s weekend, 5,006 customers ordered furniture at cut-rate prices from the ShopMyExchange.com website — then learned that their orders had been canceled.

That’s because those discounts, totaling upward of 80 percent on many items, were a mistake made by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, when some pricing was done on Jan. 1.

When Military Times wrote about that mistake, a number of people commented. Some noted that customers should have realized it was a mistake. Many asserted that even if it was a mistake, AAFES owed it to its customers to honor the discount — and some wondered whether federal law requires that in such instances.

It doesn’t, according to experts we contacted.

While the Federal Trade Commission Act covers deceptive and misleading actions and practices in commerce, cases like these are more typically simple mistakes made by the retailer.

“Accordingly, it’s up to the retailer’s discretion whether they will honor the mistakenly advertised price or provide consumers that bought the product with some other type of compensation,” said Mitchell Katz, an FTC spokesman.

Moreover, there is no Defense Department-wide policy addressing retail pricing errors, said DoD spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson.

AAFES itself has no set policy; it handles these incidents on a case-by-case basis, said AAFES spokesman Chris Ward. “Fortunately, it doesn’t happen enough for there to be a set policy in place,” he said.

“This has been a gray area for consumers,” said Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for Consumer Action, a consumer education and advocacy group. “When it’s a clear mistake, I don’t think there’s any law that covers it.”

Consumers have the option of filing complaints with their state’s attorney general’s office or consumer advocacy office, Sherry said. But the bottom line is that while some retailers may choose to honor the erroneous price to avoid ill will among customers, they “don’t have to.”

She noted that retailers could offer another discount, and indeed, that’s the route AAFES is taking — affected customers have been notified about the mistake, and have been offered one-time discounts of 30 percent off their next furniture order.

Word got out quickly about the cut-rate furniture prices that were offered until Jan. 3, when AAFES discovered the mistake. Looking at comments about this incident and similar mistakes by other retailers, some customers clearly know there has been an error and hope to get the deal before the mistake is caught. And some people actually troll for such mistakes, and when they find them, swoop in to take advantage in an excessive way.

Look at the numbers: About half of the furniture orders placed with AAFES that weekend were for multiple items, and many of those orders contained duplicates of the same item. One order contained 53 units across 32 unique items, said Ward, the AAFES spokesman.

A total of 5,006 AAFES customers placed a total of 6,212 furniture orders that weekend, including dining room sets, sectional sofas and other large items. About 1,900 of those customers placed more than one order. In contrast, for the exchange service’s online Thanksgiving weekend sales, 1,012 customers placed 1,047 furniture orders.

Sherry noted that when retailers honor erroneous prices, other customers likely will pay for it down the line.

Military exchanges aren’t like commercial retailers whose profits go to corporate shareholders. The exchanges squeeze every dollar they can in operating costs so they can contribute more profits to military morale, welfare and recreation funds that support your installation’s programs.

One more thing to keep in mind: Military regulations prohibit exchange customers from making a purchase in order to sell an item to unauthorized customers. It’s also illegal to use exchange purchases to produce income.

We all look for great deals. But when you order dozens of pieces of furniture from the exchange, to include sets of furniture and duplicates, what’s your real intention?

Karen Jowers writes about military consumer issues and other quality-of-life issues. To reach her: kjowers@militarytimes.com.  

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