Wal-Mart Blames Web Site Incident on Employee's Error

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

Human error caused four films about legendary African Americans to be linked to "Planet of the Apes" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" DVDs on Wal-Mart's retail Web site, the company said yesterday.

A Walmart.com employee mistakenly grouped the four movies with 263 boxed-set DVDs a year ago as the company prepared for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day promotion, Wal-Mart said. The company called the error "completely unintentional" and said no punishment was planned.

"The person did this with the best of intentions of putting together the right topics for the right time of year here," said Carter Cast, president of Walmart.com.

The long list of DVD sets paired with the films included "The Audrey Hepburn DVD Collection" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus Megaset." When shoppers clicked on those products, the African American-themed movies appeared under a list of "similar items."

The mismatched pairings touched a nerve, however, when site users discovered that the films were also attached to "Planet of the Apes: The Complete TV Series" and a boxed set of "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and "The Incredible Mr. Limpet."

The four African American-themed films were "What's Love Got to Do With It," "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," "Martin Luther King: I Have A Dream/Assassination of MLK" and "Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."

Several information experts said Wal-Mart's explanation seemed valid, but the incident still had critics assailing Wal-Mart for insensitivity.

Although the problem became widely known only Thursday, John Pappas III, who runs the Web log San Diego Johnny, said he noticed the offensive grouping in October.

The science-fiction fan said he came across it while looking to buy the "Planet of the Apes" series on Walmart.com and wrote about it on his blog. On Thursday, blogger Jane Hamsher posted the news on her site, Firedoglake, after receiving a tip from a reader. Within hours, the blogosphere was on fire, and Wal-Mart was running damage control.

The company apologized in a statement again yesterday for "the recent inappropriate promotion" and said it would examine its movie catalog to avoid any similar events in the future. The software that controlled its movie recommendations was still disabled yesterday evening.

Such "cross-selling" or "recommendation" systems have become standard for many online retailers.

Some rely on complicated computer algorithms to make suggestions, while others must be manually directed to sort items.

Some, including Amazon.com's, use both methods, company spokeswoman Patty Smith said. ChoiceStream Inc. has developed new technology that combines them into a single, automated feature.

"It's only just become true that people are putting personalization as an ingredient at the top of their list," chief executive Steve Johnson said. "We get a call when the light goes on."

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