The price of freedom turned out to be an afternoon of tech panic

It can be so hard to tell one column from another in a spreadsheet. They all look the same

Who, Me? Welcome once again, dear reader, to the sanctuary we call Who, Me? in which Register readers can safely share their burdens and tell the tales of technical not-quite-expertise.

Take this week's story, for instance, in which a reader we'll call "Jeff" made a very simple error – the kind of error any one of us could have made. But in Jeff's case it happened to put his boss completely out of business, albeit temporarily.

Newly hatched from tech school, Jeff had landed a job in a local camping store, stacking shelves. It didn't take long though (less than an hour on the job) for the boss to realize that Jeff's technical qualifications might suit him better to a role in IT – such as it was.

The business was "based in two former farm buildings (a barn and cow shed)" and Jeff's role in IT "involved everything from backups, installing CCTV, fixing network issues caused by trucks taking out the network cable strung over the yard between buildings, writing software to sync up the shop POS with the online sales system."

Or he might be asked to pack orders of tent pegs and caravan toilet fluid.

Suffice to say his days could involve varied duties.

For the purposes of this story we're going to focus on the online sales system though.

Jeff, diligent lad that he was, realized that the default setting for shipping from the online stores (the shop had marketplaces on Amazon, eBay and the shop's own web site) was first class shipping, for which it charged customers. He figured that if the biz raised prices a little then sent things by second class mail and didn't charge for shipping, the increased sales would more than make up for the shipping cost.

The boss liked the initiative and gave the go-ahead. Not just for an experiment, either – he asked Jeff to change the listings for every product on every store.

Evidently the notion of A/B testing had not been taught at Jeff's tech school.

Anyway, Jeff exported the list of products from the online sales system, adjusted the relevant columns, then uploaded it. The system then updated the listings one by one on Amazon, eBay and the web site.

All done before lunch.

Now, as it happened, the owner had set his phone to alert him to online orders and other notifications from eBay and Amazon. As he was sitting down to his sandwich, his phone pinged. He smiled at the thought of another sale and continued munching, when there was another ping. And another. And another.

A successful experiment would be a very pleasing thing indeed, but this seemed rather too many pings.

He checked his notifications, to discover that his products were indeed flying off the shelves – but not in a good way.

Jeff had inadvertently zeroed the price column on every product. Hundreds of them. And as a result they were being delisted from eBay and Amazon marketplaces.

Realizing his mistake, Jeff revised the spreadsheet and uploaded it once moreit. But the e-commerce sites hadn't finished processing his first change. So it was several hours more of delisting products before Amazon and eBay began relisting everything.

And all the time the boss's phone was pinging constantly.

Thankfully when it was all done the owner was very forgiving, though it had cost an afternoon's online sales. And he did dock Jeff's pay for the cost of relisting everything.

But Jeff kept his job at least. A while later he moved to a larger concern in the manufacturing industry, where he was able to make more industrial scale errors. But that's a story for another time.

Spreadsheets are hard, right? If you've ever added when you should have subtracted, tell us about it in an email to Who, Me? and we'll make you (anonymously) famous.

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