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Imagine for a moment that you’re in charge of a promotion in which a fortunate few will win a valuable coupon code for $88 off a $100 purchase. Would you make the coupon code a secure, random string of letters and numbers, unique to each recipient? Or would you take the easy way out and make the coupon code something simple like, oh, say, “88OFF”?

The beauty retailer Sephora chose the simple option. Then it was shocked and surprised when everyone figured it out. Now, customers are upset and Sephora is in full-fledged damage control, after creating the world’s most obvious coupon code.

It started innocently enough last month in Sephora’s Canadian division, when Sephora Canada introduced its “lucky red envelope” promotion in honor of the Lunar New Year. Customers who made a purchase were eligible to win the grand prize of an $888 gift card, or 1 of just 100 coupon codes offering $88 off a $100 purchase.

But things got out of control last Friday, when at least one winner of an $88 coupon shared their good fortune with some friends, who promptly shared it with the entire internet. The “88OFF” coupon code spread like wildfire, until Sephora realized what it had done and pulled the plug on the entire promotion, canceling orders and trying to act like the whole thing was someone else’s fault.

“The $88 off $100 deal posted on non-Sephora channels is not a valid promotion and is therefore not being honored,” the company explained. “We apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment this causes.”

Any coupon glitch will prompt some vocal shoppers to complain that the company should honor it. But honoring hundreds or thousands of $88 coupons when the company had only budgeted for a hundred of them is the kind of thing that could cause serious financial damage to a company. So while it is perhaps understandable why Sephora killed the deal, it’s the fact that the company tried to claim it was “not a valid promotion” because the coupon was shared on “non-Sephora channels” that’s rubbing many Sephora shoppers the wrong way.

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“How does an unauthorized promotion code work? If this code was really invalid, why did the site allow the purchase?” one commenter wrote on Twitter. “The code was absolutely authorized. If it was unauthorized it would not have been approved. This was a mistake on your end,” another commenter wrote.

Others were more judicious in their comments. “I can’t believe they used a generic code. That was a disaster waiting to happen,” a participant on an internet message board wrote. “Stunningly huge mistake on someone’s part, it seems,” another offered.

Still other shoppers are taking Sephora’s side in this whole mess. “So apparently someone won the contest, and then decided to share the coupon code. That makes any non-contest winners using that code fraud,” one Twitter commenter wrote. “I find it lacking in integrity when someone tries to use a code from a contest they clearly didn’t win,” another said.

It’s unclear what will happen to customers who actually won the contest and haven’t used their 88OFF coupon code yet. If the coupon code is “not a valid promotion”, will they get a replacement coupon code that actually is valid? Will the winner of the $888 gift card suddenly find that their prize is “not valid” either? So far, Sephora isn’t saying.

It’s safe to say that shoppers who are calling for a boycott of Sephora and refusing ever to shop there again are probably overreacting. But Sephora doesn’t come out looking very good either, after blaming “non-Sephora channels” for its poorly thought-out promotion and trying to wiggle out of the mess it made by claiming the coupon code is “not valid”.

Whichever side you take, one Twitter commenter summed up the situation succinctly, in a statement mocking Sephora’s response to its disappointed customers: “Dear Everyone, We had a Lunar New Year promo code. We advertised it, and accepted it at your time of purchase. We then realized we made a huge mistake and changed our mind. We then lied a bit, and apologized. The end.”

Considering how many avaricious shoppers are up in arms about not being able to cash in on a promotional error, it is perhaps ironic that this year’s Lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Pig. Sephora might want to take note that next year will be the Year of the Rat. Unless it wants to tempt fate with another “lucky red envelope” promotion that could turn into another self-inflicted public relations debacle – it might consider sitting next year out.

Photo by Mike Saechang

2 Comments

  1. Sorry….”ONLY ones eligible for that coupon code were the ones that won”

  2. ONLY ones eligible for that coupon code were the ones that one. So someone posts the code they used, and everyone else things it is their God-given right to use that code? No integrity whatsoever.

    I remember something similar happening here in Canada where people applied to participate in a product test…..those chosen were given a link to print the coupon needed for the free product. One dumbass posted that in one coupon group and it went viral……the site, though they honored the coupon even for those who were not entitiled to it since it was only for a free product worth no more than $5, they tracked down the member who had posted the link (despite the email/link telling them doing so was not allowed) and that person was removed from their database. And they minced no words when they explained what had happened, etc.

    So I agree with Sephora…and anyone who thinks Sephora is in the wrong (other than they made a mistake and have learned from it for future promos) clearly have no morals or integrity themselves.

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