Wal-Mart response to pricing glitch not unusual, say experts

Getty Images

But what about the low-price guarantee?

Following Wal-Mart's announcement that it would not honor online purchases made Wednesday, when a computer glitch slashed prices on everything from mountain bikes to high-definition TVs, some shoppers were left questioning the retailer's integrity.

Consumers vented their outrage on social media after hearing that all orders would be canceled and that shoppers would be issued a $10 gift card, with some asking what good was a card if they would no longer shop there.

Despite the backlash, industry experts said it is typical for retailers to cancel orders when a major technical error occurs, and that Wal-Mart's reaction wasn't that bad.

In fact, they said, the fault might lie more directly with shoppers.

(Read more: Wal-Mart accidentally slashes prices, blames glitch)

"In most cases of outlandish prices, the consumer is well aware of the error and is trying to take advantage of the glitch," said Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general for consumer protection and founder of Consumer World, a Web resource guide .

He noted 21 pages of comments left on aggregator site Slickdeals, where a shopper who had caught the mistake shared the news with others so they could capitalize on the ultracheap merchandise.

"Most of the consumers who [made purchases] did it on a gamble thinking they may luck out," Dworsky said. "It's the consumer who believed they were buying at an honest price who, to me, has a better case."

He recalled two similar incidents involving, one in which a mistake caused some of its DVD prices to be cut by more than 75 percent. Dell also encountered a similar issue in 2011, when one of its laptops who ticket price was $1,000 was advertised on the Army and Air Force Exchange Service's site for $25. In all cases, the retailers did not honor the deals.

Dworksy pointed out that many companies take legal cover under the Terms and Conditions area of their websites.

For example, a part of Wal-Mart Stores' Terms and Use section says, "Pricing errors may occur on the Walmart Sites or through Walmart Marketplace retailers. Walmart reserves the right to cancel any orders containing pricing errors, with no further obligations to you, even after your receipt of an order confirmation or shipping notice from Walmart."

Wal-Mart says 'technical error' hit site
Wal-Mart says 'technical error' hit site

That's not to say all companies retract their deals.

In September, United Airlines' website had a glitch that offered flights at drastically reduced fares—sometimes zero. The airline reviewed the mistake and honored the ticket purchases made while the site wasn't properly functioning.

(Read more: United Airlines accidentally sells free plane tickets)

The carrier's reactions was atypical, according to Dworsky.

Jack Trout, president of the marketing consulting firm Trout & Partners, said he doubts the incident will dent Wal-Mart's image long term, as such situations tend to disappear quickly.

Illustrating his point, one Twitter complaint read "Congrats @amazon you get all my business now that @walmart has decided to screw us all over"—despite the online behemoth's similar move in the past.

Offering the $10 gift card was a good tactic as it showed good will, Trout said, though he thinks Wal-Mart would done well to inject some humor into the situation.

"You come up with a concept that reinforces what you are but says, 'We're all for low prices, but it got a little out of control,' " he said.

Even better from a public relations perspective, Trout said, would be to eat the loss (depending on the size).

"I think Wal-Mart could use a little bit of that from time to time," he added.

Robin Lewis, CEO of The Robin Report strategy newsletter, said this particular incident is indicative of a larger problem at hand across the industry.

"We're going through a period here when the technologies are way ahead of us," he said. "I think we're going to see not just pricing glitches but all kinds of mistakes that are going to be disruptive."

Wal-Mart spokesman Ravi Jariwala said it had apologized to customers for the inconvenience, while notifying them that orders will be canceled and that they will receive a $10 e-gift card within the next five days. He did not say how many orders had been made during the glitch.

The company has a major focus on e-commerce initiatives this holiday season, doubling the number of items on its site from last year, to more than 5 million.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson. With contributions from Katie Little.