So is the UK’s most famous toy store a victim of an internet loophole or the author of its own problems?

According to reports, the store has been “pillaged” by ruthless and battle-hardened internet shoppers to the point where it was close to running out of toys less than a week before Christmas.

It appears that Hamleys, like Threshers a few weeks ago, has fallen victim to a discount voucher not originally intended for the mass market.

Those subscribing to the HotUKDeals site spotted the 60% online discount and made full use of the opportunities it presented.

Hamleys retail and IT managers were apparently caught out by the rush and the store’s website was almost brought to its knees in less than 24 hours.

The Guardian reports the company admitting that it had “fallen foul of the loophole” and maintained such mistakes were “one of the downsides of e-commerce”.

The newspaper also quotes an e-commerce expert as saying Hamleys had fallen victim to “consumer hackers” who “put huge effort into finding tricks and ploys that can save money”.

But is Hamleys really a victim in all this?

Equally, did Threshers suffer at the hands of a ruthless band of marauders following its now legendary 40% discount coupon?

Everyone, individuals and companies, has been jumping on the internet shopping bandwagon in recent years. Indeed, the run up to Christmas 2006 could be the time when on-line consumerism really came of age.

High streets around the country are reporting sluggish business and almost all are pinning the blame firmly at the door of the internet. The British Retail Consortium suggests that the traditional month-long spending spree up to December 24 has been replaced by a much shorter period as more people taking advantage of the buying opportunities on-line.

This has been evident in the growing number of pre-Christmas sales and discounts being offered on the high street.

So does this mean the balance of power has shifted towards the consumer at last?

On some levels it has. The Hamleys and Threshers cases suggest that when it comes to being internet savvy, the average home-based web surfer is far more accomplished than large companies.

Companies cannot simply “play” with the internet these days. They have been completely on top of their game – as most regular e-consumers are – otherwise they’ll get caught out in a big way.

Far from being “victims”, the likes of Hamleys and Threshers are actually guilty of a degree of complacency in failing to ensure they have crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s – surely leaving any sort of loophole makes you the author of your own downfall?

But there has not been a total shift towards the consumer. We’re still very much at the mercy of large retailers and until we all start voting with our wallets and purses, they’ll continue to get away with treating us mean to keep us keen.

The study by The Grocer magazine into why many of our leading supermarkets are failing to get basic provisions – milk, bread and butter included – onto shelves shows the attitude they have towards consumers. The fact that many of these supermarkets continue to post increased profits suggests that we’re not about to stop shopping there, even if we can’t always buy what we want.

As companies begin to learn lessons from the experience of the likes of Hamleys, the balance of power will remain in favour of big business and the fight for a level playing field will get harder.

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