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Thousands of shoppers across the globe thought they got great deals through the Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s online store last week, only to have their orders canceled by the exchange.

The so-called deals — which slashed prices on popular products — were the result of “human error,” Judd Anstey, an AAFES spokesman, said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

But that explanation hasn’t consoled all of the people who thought they had stumbled on a bargain. Some say AAFES acted poorly in its decision to cancel their orders with little more than a form e-mail.

After the erroneous prices for 11 different military clothing items were posted on AAFES’ Web site March 15, word quickly spread that the exchange was having what at least one online shopper referred to as a “once in a lifetime sale.”

That line came from Master Sgt. Michael Taylor, a member of the 793rd Military Police Company, who wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes calling on AAFES to “honor its own mistake.”

“This appeared to be a legitimate offer from a retailer that has always claimed to be a valuable benefit for the military members it serves,” Taylor wrote. “I passed the word on to a lot of junior ranking [S]oldiers that could really benefit from the price break, and I was hoping AAFES would still take care of them even after the mistake was discovered.”

Taylor’s was among 11,142 orders canceled. In all, shipment was halted on 102,289 individual items.

The Army Combat Uniform coat, normally priced at $37.55; matching trousers, normally $35.20; and the Air Force physical training jacket, which sells for $54.60, were among the items priced incorrectly. These and the other items were all mistakenly priced at $6.10.

Mistake or not, AAFES isn’t allowed to sell military clothing items at such a deep discount, according to Anstey.

“AAFES has reached out to shoppers affected by this issue through one-on-one communication to ensure they were aware of the circumstances and regulations governing [Military Clothing Sales Store] items,” Anstey wrote.

By Army regulation, “price reductions … to stimulate sale of phase-out items in the [Army Military Clothing Sales Store] are authorized only when there is a difference in utility or desirability of an item because of age, condition or model,” Anstey wrote. “As you know, the 11 issue items that reflected inaccurate prices do not meet the standards for a price reduction.”

AAFES contends that the regulation and a legal disclaimer on its site that states, “In the event we have an irregularity or error on the web site, we reserve the right, at our sole discretion, to cancel or refuse any orders placed for that item …,” will protect the exchange from legal action.

However, court cases in the U.S. relating to mistaken prices posted on Internet stores leave the issue open.

The U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, held in 2001 that a disclaimer similar to the one used by AAFES on its Web site was not enforceable. A handful of subsequent cases regarding similar disclaimers have upheld this precedent.

Wilmer Hale, a large law firm that represents businesses in the U.S., Europe and Asia, has cases posted on its Web site to help customers protect themselves in situations similar to what AAFES has stumbled into. Hale’s site has a number of examples of how companies were burned, such as the case of Buy.com. In 1999, the Internet retailer mistakenly posted a price of $164.50 for a computer monitor that actually cost about $400 more than that. The company blamed the mistake on a typographical error, but later agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by about 7,000 customers, and paid out $575,000.

A spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission was aware of what happened at AAFES, but declined to give an on-the-record comment about whether AAFES followed legal guidelines in handling the problem.

But, “It’s not even about that,” said Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Page, who works for V Corps in Heidelberg, Germany. She wasn’t as concerned with the legal guidelines as she was with AAFES canceling her order.

AAFES’ actions, Page said, left her feeling as if she’d been “punched in the face” without being able to do anything about it. “If you were a regular business, you couldn’t get away with that,” she said.

She would have been happy to get a $10 gift certificate from AAFES to compensate for their mistake, she said, and added, “I probably wouldn’t even have used it” but the gesture would have been nice. “It’s about being appreciated.”

Taylor felt much the same way. He said he believes the exchange made an honest mistake, but thought it could issue coupons to people whose orders were canceled due to the pricing snafu, which servicemembers had nothing to do with.

“I’m going to drop the issue, but it doesn’t mean I’m OK with it,” Taylor said.

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