Harvey Norman has gone to ground since its biggest ever retail sale turned to custard. No doubt its public relations experts advised the company to say nothing and eventually it would all blow over. And the experts will be right. But it does leave a sour taste.

Some commentators argued Harvey Norman made a mistake and the store shouldn’t be expected to honour that. But here’s the thing – the company advertised for days in advance its biggest retail sale ever. Its advertising was everywhere. It started the sale at the novel time of midnight. The furniture at the heavily discounted price was available for eight hours before anyone noticed the error.

This was against a backdrop of a big-box retailer that has sales on all the time. As we know from our recent research into items on sale at Farmers and Briscoes, products over a three-month period were virtually always on sale. Harvey Norman is no different.

So a customer who goes online at midnight expecting to get a big discount is likely to believe the store was offering lounge suites at incredibly discounted prices. Just like in the old days when people would queue around the block of a department store when it had its annual sale, knowing the first through the door would get outrageous bargains.

People who signed on at midnight to Harvey Norman’s sale would also have believed the outrageous prices were real for the early bird.

We’ve received some complaints to our advisers and we’ve assisted some to take them further – either to the Commerce Commission (the regulator), or to the Disputes Tribunal. We’ll be looking for any results from either of those two bodies.

Of course shops can make mistakes. And when they are genuine, we should be sympathetic. Harvey Norman made a mistake on a grand scale. But in the realm of things, honouring the heavily discounted prices for those who found them – there were only about 300 – would have been the honourable thing to do.

Harvey Norman may have gotten away with it this time, but let’s hope some shoppers are deciding with their feet (or logout button).

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday. She says there are strong parallels between consumer advocacy and journalism.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme, an alternate on the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commission and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.