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ASA Ruling on John Lewis Partnership PLC

Published on 20 March 2017

Can you pull a promotion if you’re nervous about stock levels?

The complaint

An Apple watch was advertised on the John Lewis website for £249 in a price match. This coincided with the following promotion announcement: "BLACK FRIDAY EVENT – Friday 25 – Monday 28 November – We’ve lowered hundreds of our prices this weekend. Check our offers online and in store – NEVER KNOWINGLY UNDERSOLD SINCE 1925". Text further down the page stated "PRICE MATCH – Today we’re matching a competitor’s promotion".

The complainant had attempted to purchase the Apple watch at the promotion price online, only to discover the product was listed as "out of stock" on the website. However, the complainant noticed that the Apple Watch was listed as available the following day (ie after the promotion had ended) at full price. She challenged whether the promotion had been administered fairly. 

The response

John Lewis stated that the offer was not a planned promotion, and had simply been a reactive price match to a competitor promotion on Black Friday. This had resulted in an unprecedented increase in sales of the Apple Watch. They stated that their system did not give “live” (ie by-the-minute) stock updates for online purchases, but they did know the number of products which they held at the start of the day. In this case, they made a decision to remove the product as they were concerned that they would have insuffcient stock to fulfil orders made online. As a result, they had taken the decision to list the Apple Watch as “out of stock” on their website. They said the product returned to full price the next day as the competitor’s promotion had ended. John Lewis accepted that they may have perhaps taken this decision too early (as there was still stock available) but stated that they had taken the decision in good faith and in the context of significant sale uplifts on their busiest day of the year.

The decision

The ASA upheld the complaint. It considered that John Lewis’s decision to make a product unavailable (in circumstances where they did still have available stock) denied online consumers the opportunity to purchase at the price match price while the competitor’s promotion was still running. The ASA therefore considered that the promotion had not been administered fairly and was in breach of rule 8.2 of the CAP Code.

Why is this important?

This decision reinforces the need to see through promotions where you still have the product available, rather than to pull it early because of concerns over stock levels. It also shows how quickly the press will jump on a “whiter than white” consumer brand if they have the smallest chance to do so. And in the context of a £20 saving on an Apple Watch, that can prove costly from a PR perspective.

Any practical tips?

The case feels like it arose from confusion over multiple promotions running at the same time, rather than anything more serious – but perhaps that is a lesson in itself during busy sale periods such as Black Friday. More importantly, the decision reinforces the need for marketers to ensure that their systems are capable of supporting their promotions properly, including having suffcient stock to meet anticipated demand. Pulling a promotion early because of concerns over stock availability simply will not wash as a defence with the ASA.


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