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Scam or stunt? It's looking like the latter... Xiaomi so sorry for £1 smartphone 'promo'

When an offer looks too good to be true, it always is

Chinese phone maker Xiaomi is in damage-control mode after an online promotion coinciding with its big UK launch somewhat backfired.

The plan was to offer handsets for just a quid in Blighty, when a countdown on its UK website reached zero, with the impression being that if you clicked soon after the timer ran out, you'd be able to snap up a pretty decent phone on the cheap. Thousands of people eagerly piled in, but were disappointed. The offer was too good to be true. When the countdown hit zero, the Xiaomi website reported all of the £1 units were out of stock.

Now some people, technical folks loving a bargain, had set up multiple web accounts to try and get hold of the cheap Chinese kit. When everyone seemingly struck out, these savvy netizens got suspicious, and one bright spark decided to dig a little deeper into the offer. It appeared, from the public-facing website code, that no attempt was made by the JavaScript to check for whether or not stock was available: when the timer hit zero, hopefuls were simply told, sorry, there are no mega-discounted handsets. You'll just have to pay the full price.

It thus appeared the website was hard-coded to reject attempts to buy the offered £1 phones, leading some to assume it was all a scam to generate hype and publicity. So we asked Xiaomi what was going on. Its UK marketing boss got back to us:

In other words, this isn't a scam nor a bug, but a feature, of sorts. It was a lottery, not a special offer. Get a load of people looking at the site, get them to compete for a bargain device per day, pick just a few lucky winners at random, and it's done. How do we know this? As well as the above explanation, Xiaomi actually stated it in the terms and conditions of the promotion, which were linked to at the bottom of the page:

12:00 Nov. 9th: Mi 8 Lite 6GB RAM 128GB ROM, Black, 3 units 20:00 Nov. 9th: Mi A2 4GB RAM 64GB ROM,Black, 3 units 12:00 Nov. 10th: Mi 8 Lite 6GB RAM 128GB ROM,Blue, 2 units 12:00 Nov. 11th: Mi A2 4GB RAM 64GB ROM,Gold, 2 units

So there you have it: 10 phones for the 60 million people of the UK to fight over. Understandably, some British buyers were a little peeved: if it was a lottery, it should have said so. People thought it was a first-come, first-served special discount, with a decent stockpile of gear up for grabs, when really it was nothing of the sort. It was a raffle draw.

Of course, if a biz is offering you a new smartphone for a quid, you might well assume stocks are limited or some other catch applies. In this case, there was a catch: there were only a few devices available during each offer-slash-giveaway. One might say it's not entirely unreasonable to expect a phone maker to only offer a few devices at £1. Anything else is commercial suicide.

The biz has since apologized, though, for the confusion, insisting it was a lost-in-translation blunder. Here's the official statement we got on Monday:

The promotion was originally named ‘Crazy Deal’ and would make a total of 10 Xiaomi smartphones available in the UK for £1. The devices were to be distributed in four phases at four time slots. In each time slot, a total of three, three, two and then finally another two devices were included.

Before launch however, concerned about the vagueness and potentially negative connotations of the term “Crazy Deal”, we changed the name of the promotion to “Flash Sale”. Unfortunately, we did not realise that the public associates this term with a very particular type of deal Xiaomi has run for in the past across different global markets, where more than 10 devices were available.

This has led to concern on social media that the terms of the UK flash deal were unclear, and/or that the devices were not available for £1 as promised. We can confirm that 10 customers have received discount codes which will allow them to purchase a Xiaomi device for £1. Of the thousands who clicked ‘buy’ simultaneously, our system will randomly select the winners, and he or she will be able to add this item to the shopping cart and pay this handset at £1. We’re sorry so many of our Mi fans missed out this time round, but we hope they’ll take part in future flash sales as and when we announce them.

@XiaomiUK would like to apologise for any misunderstanding. For future deals, we will take into account the need for clarity and differentiating in promotions we are running.

We'll be watching to see if the promotion results in any complaints to the regulators: the Advertising Standards Agency or local Trading Standards. ®

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