Consumer-Generated Justice: Blogger Sidelines E-Commerce Site

After a heated phone exchange with an unsatisfied customer who happened to be a blogger, PriceRitePhoto.com, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based camera e-retailer, recently found that blogosphere justice can be swift, but is rarely merciful.

Thursday, around 48 hours after "Thomas Hawk"--a pseudonymous tech and photography blogger based in San Francisco--posted a nightmare tale of hard sells, threats of legal action, endless delays, and runarounds, PriceRitePhoto.com has found its Web site in shambles, and its listings removed from prominent shopping aggregators like PriceGrabber.com and Yahoo! Shopping.

The blogger--who asked that his real name be withheld--wrote on his blog, Digital Connection, that a PriceRitePhoto.com sales rep tried to sell him accessories he didn't want, and then when he refused, told him the camera he had ordered was out of stock--an experience that many other customers report having in customer reviews on Yahoo! Shopping and PriceGrabber.com.

The call became heated, the blogger said, when he told the rep he was going to write an article about the experience for his blog. "I told him I was planning to write an article about it. That's all I said. Immediately the guy went ballistic on me," he said in a telephone interview.

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He posted an account of his experience on Digital Connection, and also mentioned that he had found the retailer through Yahoo! Shopping. As of Wednesday, PriceRitePhoto.com still appeared on Yahoo! Shopping with a rating of four stars out of a possible five, but by Thursday, the site had been delisted.

He also posted a link to the story on a community-driven news site, Digg.com, and the story ballooned from there. The blog, Digital Connection, which regularly receives roughly 5,000 unique visitors per day, garnered over 125,000 visits on Wednesday and Thursday.

Howard Baker, a manager with PriceRitePhoto.com, said the business had suffered "millions of dollars" worth of damages in the last two days, apparently at the hands of consumer vigilantes who had read the Digital Connection post.

"In the last couple of days there was one disgruntled customer that posted a blog that caused thousands of people to come out of the woodwork and jam our Web site," said Baker--citing viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and thousands of prank calls. "We're talking to our attorneys this afternoon, and will probably be taking legal action."

"They're basically trying to destroy our business in our busiest month, and they have," Baker said. "No hard-working small business owner should ever experience something like this."

Wednesday, shortly after the original Digital Connection post, popular tech news site Slashdot picked up the story. Joe Lazarus, director of marketing for Yahoo! Shopping, eventually weighed in with a comment to the Digital Connection blog, which asked users to keep a sharp eye out for reviews that seem questionable. "We rely on our community of consumers to share feedback with each other through ratings and reviews on our site. That system works well, but it's not perfect. So, we encourage people like you to contact us if they see reviews that are suspect, abusive, off-topic, or otherwise objectionable," he wrote.

Despite hundreds of negative, one-star reviews posted on PriceGrabber.com and Yahoo! Shopping, PriceRitePhoto.com managed to maintain a high rating--four stars out of five on both sites--in part due to hundreds of equally positive, five-star reviews. The vast majority of the reviews posted on the shopping aggregator sites were either one star or five stars; few reviews told of a middling experience with the company. Yahoo! declined to speculate how the merchant maintained a four-star rating with a legion of one-star comments; a company spokesperson confirmed that Yahoo! Shopping removed PriceRitePhoto.com from its listings after an investigation.

Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of buzz-monitoring firm Intelliseek, likened PriceRitePhoto.com's blogosphere drubbing to the "Dell Hell" saga documented on Buzz Machine, the Web log of media figure Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis wrote about a bad experience he had with computer giant Dell's customer service, creating an avalanche of negative comments about Dell and bringing to light hundreds of bad consumer experiences with Dell's support staff.

"Moral of the story: this is a new age of accountability," Blackshaw said. "We're in a new consumer surveillance society where ostensibly benign and sneaky misdeeds are magnified for broader audiences."

Blackshaw added that companies must be careful with their reputations on the Web, where a single consumer with a blog--even a relatively low-trafficked one--can catalyze a huge backlash on the blogosphere. "Credibility is fragile in the age of consumer-generated media, and none of us are immune to this," he said. "The merchant makes a claim. The blogger puts it to the torture test, outs the contradiction, and the viral network does the rest of the dirty work."

On Thursday, Digital Connection posted an apologetic e-mail from Ed Lopez, the owner of PriceRitePhoto.com. "On behalf of Priceritephoto I would like to sincerely apologize for the negative experience that you have experienced with our company," the e-mail read. "We are doing a comprehensive review of our company's procedures to ensure that something like this never occurs."

The blogger said he had not expected the magnitude of the response to his story. "Obviously I felt slighted, I felt that I'd been abused and offended, and I planned on posting this article. I have a blog with moderate traffic," he said. "I submitted this story to Digg and I wasn't necessarily expecting it to take off per se, but certainly it did."

The reason for the response, he figures, is that other readers could identify with his situation. "It resonated very, very strongly with people. At one point or another we've all be bullied or ripped off or defrauded," he said. "In the past, there was nothing we could do about it--we just have taken this abuse."

These days, things are a bit different: Caveat venditor--let the seller beware.

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