Dell in hot water for making shoppers think overpriced monitors were discounted

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A Dell computer monitor sits on display inside a Staples store in New York, U.S.

Dell Technologies’ Australia subsidiary misled online shoppers into thinking that adding a monitor to their purchase would get them a discount on the display, even though doing so sometimes resulted in customers paying a higher price for the monitor than if they had bought it on its own. That’s according to a declaration by the Australian Federal Court on Monday. The deceptive practices happened on Dell’s Australian website, but they serve as a reminder to shoppers everywhere that a strikethrough line or sale stamp on an online retailer doesn’t always mean you’re getting a bargain.

On June 5, the Federal Court said Dell Australia was guilty of making “false or misleading representations with respect to the price” of monitors that its website encouraged shoppers to add to their purchase. The purchases were made from August 2019 to the middle of December 2021.

The website would display the add-on price alongside a higher price that had a strikethrough line, suggesting that the monitor was typically sold at the price with the line going through it but that customers would get a discount if they added it to their cart at purchase. (The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, or ACCC, posted a screenshot example here.) However, the strikethrough prices weren’t actually representative of what Dell was charging for the monitors for most of the time before the purported discount.

In fact, the allegedly discounted price occasionally turned out to be a rip-off. As ACCC commissioner Liza Carver said in a statement today:

In some cases, consumers paid more for the add-on monitor advertised as “discounted” than they would have paid if they had bought it as a stand-alone product, which is shocking.

The Australian Federal Court also found that Dell’s Australian website used deceptive language, like “Includes x% off,” “Total Savings” plus a dollar amount, “Discounted Price” and a dollar amount, and “Get the best price for popular accessories when purchased with this product.”

According to the ACCC, shoppers spent over $2 million Australian dollars ($1.33 million USD) on 5,300 add-on monitors during this time period. The Australian Federal Court ordered Dell Australia to give full or partial refunds to affected customers.

The company must also hire an “independent compliance professional” and contact affected customers.

The Australian Federal Court will take comment on further penalties Dell Australia should incur, which could include fines, at a future date.

When it was announced in November that Dell Australia was facing litigation, a Dell Australia spokesperson told The Register that a mistake in the pricing process was to blame for the false information on the company’s website.

Dell told The Register today:

As we acknowledged in November 2022 when the ACCC commenced these proceedings, due to an unrectified error on our part, our web page misrepresented the level of savings consumers could achieve by purchasing a monitor in conjunction with a desktop, laptop, or notebook.

Dell is looking into refunding customers, “plus interest,” Dell’s statement to The Register added, and the company is “taking steps to improve our pricing processes to ensure this sort of error does not happen again.”

Making sure a discount is an actual deal

Plenty of other websites promote products as being on sale, even if they were sold for less in the past—and even if, as was the case with Dell Australia, the so-called original price was the MSRP for a short or virtually non-existent amount of time.

For example, I’ve seen OEM product pages for unreleased products, like laptops, have a strikethrough price and a “discounted” price even though the product hasn’t been released at the full MSRP yet.

And it’s no secret that online marketplaces with third-party sellers use dodgy practices. For example, I’ve seen various vendors on Amazon claim that a years-old price is the typical price of a product.

It’s tempting to jump on sales that are presented as steals. But when it comes to online shopping, you can’t trust every sale price (or review, or seller) you see. Sites like PCPartPicker track prices for PC components and peripherals over time so shoppers can see how prices have fluctuated over the years. The Camelizer is another handy shopping tool for frequent Amazon shoppers and is available as a browser plug-in.

The sure-fire way to ensure you’re getting a good price is to compare rival products. Just because a Dell monitor, for example, is technically discounted from its recent MSRP, it doesn’t mean it’s the best value among monitors with similar specs.

Shopping around is more tedious than adding a purchase with a single click, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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Abraham
Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise