(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
bugs, ebooks, japan, prices


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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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Oct 2012 @ 4:17am

    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.

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