Bug In Kobo's Online Store Offers Up Random eBook Prices [Update]

from the now-featuring-our-famous-'whatever'-pricing! dept

UPDATE: Cerys from Kobo has responded with further details on the pricing bug and what Kobo is doing to rectify the situation:

A bug in our online system resulted in a small group of US-based customers being offered international pricing instead of their in-country pricing. In the large majority of cases, there was no price difference, but for some books where publishers set two different prices, the international one was displayed. This issue has now been resolved. We will be working directly with those customers affected over the next month to examine their accounts and provide them with a refund should it be owed. We will be contacting affected customers directly, but in the meantime if anyone has any questions related to their account, we ask that they please call our Support Line at 1-855-732-3662. 

Canadian ereader manufacturer Kobo hasn't really endeared itself to its customers in recent months. A few months ago, it botched the debut of its Kobo Touch ereader in Japan, falling well short of the promised 30,000 launch titles. In addition, its desktop software tended to turn new ereaders into shiny bricks. As the complaints mounted, Kobo's parent company, Rakuten, decided the best course of action was to hide all online reviews.

A new set of issues has arisen, this time centered around Kobo's ebook store. eBook prices at Kobo seem to be strangely liquid, responding to stimuli only known to Kobo itself. The Digital Reader dragged these pricing inconsistencies out into the open earlier this month. While holding off absolute judgement until more data was in, Nate Hoffelder took time to point out the mutating prices, which bizarrely increased for many logged in customers.

While some retailers like Amazon like to selectively discount prices in order to get you in the door, other sites like Kobo prefer to jack up the prices charged to their regular customers.

Earlier today Mike Cane hooked me up with a friend of his on Twitter. @RevBobMIB was browsing the Kobo eBookstore this morning when he noticed something odd. The pricing seemed strangely inconsistent, and after checking the price of the ebook mentioned above he discovered a fascinating secret about Kobo.

As you can see in this screenshot and this screenshot, Kobo offers some of their customers a lower price than the price offered to other customers. Here is a composite, and please note that I have seen these prices as well:

Hoffelder pointed out that prices may vary in different markets and some price fluctuation is normal, depending on geographic location. But Kobo's inexplicable price shifts aren't related to market or geographic variances.

Kobo is changing the prices shown to a single customer, browsing from a single computer, getting online from a single IP address.

This post generated plenty of response, including some commenters raising the theory that this was possibly a database bug and not Kobo attempting to draw in new customers with low prices while making up the difference by gouging returning customers.

After exchanging some emails with a Kobo programmer, Hoffelder was able to draw out the real story.

A lot has happened in the couple weeks since I reported that story. After exchanging a few emails with a Kobo programmer it became clear that this was not a simple bug, nor was it a consistent one. While I still don’t know how the bug works I do know that the simple and obvious solutions don’t fix it.

And oh yeah, the bug is still happening today.

So, not a “feature,” but a bug. This clears Kobo of any ill will towards its most loyal customers, at least in terms of pricing. But, it hardly clears Kobo of any wrongdoing in terms of customer service. Digging into this a bit more, Hoffelder found evidence that this bug had been adjusting prices for at least a month:

My earliest confirmed report comes from MobileRead, and it is dated 10 September:

Is anyone else getting different prices on the checkout page? For instance, I want to get “Catching Fire” and it’s listed at $5.99. I click on the “buy now” button and the price jumps to $11.97. I contact Kobo’s customer service and they said that I should be logged in as to get the correct pricing. I log in and the same thing happens. I contacted them again, and they told me that the correct price is $11.97. But it’s still listed at $5.99?? Any ideas??

So Kobo has had this bug on their website for at least a month. As bad as that sounds the actual situation is very likely worse.

Some input from readers suggested the problem has been around for much longer than that. “Unverified reports” date the bug back as far as December 2011, and that Kobo customer service has known about the issue for at least 6 months.

Another report pulled from MobileRead (from February 2012) mentions something that sounds quite a bit like the price bug, but one that the purchaser didn't notice until it was too late.

Oh I had a similar issue. The price of the ebook I bought was much more lower on the website than what I was charged for on my credit card, that took a few weeks to resolve as well. They gave me a credit for the difference, but I did phone them about 4-5 times and emailed them at least once a week.

And then there's this, dating all the way back to December 2011.

When I go to the Kobo store I will see a book for $7.99 but when I log in the price updates to $8.99. Is this because the default price is in $US but when I log in using my Canadian they update to $CDN? I’m just wondering.

This doesn't bode well for Kobo's already-shaky customer service track record. A bug that alters prices not only during log in/log out but also during the actual checkout process isn't the sort of thing that should go unfixed for a month, much less (possibly) the greater part of the year. (Speaking of the checkout process, there's no verification screen during the purchase process. Once your purchase information is entered and the customer clicks “Buy Now,” there's no turning back, and no way to verify the price is correct before it's charged to their card.) But Kobo seems very uninterested in providing even adequate customer service.

Based on my own experiences, the 2 readers who claim they contacted Kobo customer service are very likely telling the truth. I have seen in the past at least one occasion where Kobo customer service got a complaint from a customer, responded, but appeared to not have forwarded the complaint to the relevant party inside the company who could have fixed the error.

Speaking of Kobo’s questionable customer service, there was a period of at least 3 months last year where Kobo gave out this blog as the warranty repair site for the Slick ereaders. I kid you not.

I know a number of people will step forward to defend Kobo, but I’m not sure how. A month-long bug which over-charges some readers is indefensible. Customer service dept failing to forward a bug report is indefensible.

If you want customers, especially loyal ones who will increase your market through word-of-mouth, the worst thing you can do is subject them to ineffective customer service and a roulette wheel masquerading as a pricelist. There are still plenty of happy Kobo customers, but I wouldn't expect that number to grow anytime soon. And with this parade of misdeeds and miscues swiftly becoming the public face of Kobo, I fully expect that first group's numbers to start shrinking.

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Comments on “Bug In Kobo's Online Store Offers Up Random eBook Prices [Update]”

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Anonymous Coward says:

model view controller

Assuming they’re not purposefully doing this, they’ve probably fallen victim to lazy programming. Data should be stored once, but very often developers find that having to manipulate that data is too difficult to do, so they manipulate it once and then store it somewhere. So “sale price” and “actual price” are stored in two different places. At first they’re the same, but then someone updates the actual price, but it never gets back to the sale price.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: People use the Kobo store?

Kobo is paying a high price for lack of competence by their database programmer. That price will go a lot higher as time goes by. Management should be taking decisive action. Screw-ups in customer billing have killed companies before. If Kobo allows this situation to persist, Kobo will be next. The board needs to take this situation very seriously indeed and not take “no” for an answer.

Michael (profile) says:

Fixing the problem

What will be interesting is how they deal with the issue. Knowing about it for an extended period of time and not addressing it is awful, and their customers should be pretty upset. However, handling it correctly now could really have them come out looking really good.

1) Fix the problem (obviously)
2) Own up to it and tell people what happened – no matter how stupid it was
3) Find all of the customers that were negatively impacted and offer them a refund (or at least a credit)

My guess is that if they refunded the people that overpaid $2, they would end up with a pretty loyal group of customers putting far more than that $2 back into more eBooks.

My guess is they will try to sweep this under the rug and quickly as possible and hope nobody notices.

velox (profile) says:

Bug vs "Feature"

We know that for some time now online retailers, as well as the travel industry will offer different prices depending on the data they find stored on your computer.

Unless you take active measures to block them, third party marketing companies analyze almost everything you do on your computer. Knowledge about you is sold to vendors, and the price some vendors offer may be influenced by whether your browser indicates you have seen higher prices when you visited their competitors’ websites, your income category, education level, how long you have been shopping, etc. It has even been reported that your choice of device to access their website, for example from an iPhone vs a desktop computer can influence prices.

So, perhaps it was a bug, or perhaps it was a clumsy implementation of flexible pricing based on what the marketers call “consumer web data and analytics”.

Cerys (user link) says:

Kobo Info

Hi Tim, Cerys here from Kobo. A bug in our online system resulted in a small group of US-based customers being offered international pricing instead of their in-country pricing. In the large majority of cases, there was no price difference, but for some books where publishers set two different prices, the international one was displayed. This issue has now been resolved. We will be working directly with those customers affected over the next month to examine their accounts and provide them with a refund should it be owed. We will be contacting affected customers directly, but in the meantime if anyone has any questions related to their account, we ask that they please call our Support Line at 1-855-732-3662.
Best, Cerys

Cerys (user link) says:

Fixing the problem

Hi Michael, Completely agree with your recommendation – it’s exactly what we’ve been implementing. Our resolution is posted below and we’ll be reaching out to those customers directly who were impacted. We take this matter very seriously and are working quickly to resolve it for our amazing customers. Best, Cerys

RevBobMIB says:

Re: Fixing the problem

I look forward to being contacted. I broke this news to begin with, after all…

I spoke with a supervisor ten days ago who said I’d hear back directly from her, and I haven’t heard from her since then. I only found out that the problem was fixed when I took a look in the Kobo store today and discovered it for myself. If I hadn’t been proactive in that respect, I’d still be wondering when the problem would be resolved.

This is not the way loyal customers should be treated. In particular, the offer of a single-use half-off promo code as any sort of actual “resolution” for this problem was both insulting and offensive.

Furthermore, sales tax was charged on my non-Agency purchases in the past, but is no longer being charged on them. Presumably that is part of the error that has been corrected; can I expect to see those taxes refunded? If so, when? Will I be notified?

So many questions, so few answers…

DarrellAtKobo (profile) says:

Re: Kobo Info

Hello Darryl,
It?s always best to login to your Kobo account to browse titles so that accurate pricing is always reflected for you ? sometimes IP addresses aren?t recognized properly which can sometimes result in international prices shown to you. If you continue to experience any difficulty please contact our support staff at : help@kobobooks.com

Brian says:

Re: Re: Kobo Info

Except in this case Darrell even logged in I was offered one price when presented with a list of books (I had searched for ‘Hunger games’) and a totally different, and much higher, price when either clicking the buy button or going to the books details page. So two prices even while logged in. It had nothing to do with IP recognition as far as I can tell.

Serban V.C. Enache (user link) says:

This issue is still going on

I’ve recently got my ebook, A Stage For Traitors, into the Kobo store, and the list price shows 3.99 (the proper price), while the actual click-on-it price is 4.95. Many have accused Kobo of price gouging, but what is there to gouge from an indie author’s debut novel? And how can such a bug persist for such a long time? Such things shouldn’t be happening. If the management is out of whack, then the shareholders need to vote someone else in.

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