When the email hit her inbox Saturday, Leslie Harsh got excited. Very excited.
The digital note was from Verizon Wireless, the largest cellular provider in Nebraska: "Congratulations," it read. "You've earned a new phone."
Awesome. What timing, thought Harsh, who covets Apple's newest handset, the iPhone 4S. On Sunday, Harsh, 52, and her husband, Michael, of Omaha paid a visit to Verizon Wireless' store at 168th Street and West Center Road, hoping to get Leslie's hands on the new phone.
Only she didn't.
Verizon representatives at the store told Harsh that the offer worked only with phones that the store had in stock. And since Apple and its cellular partners — AT&T, Verizon and Sprint — sold more than 4 million iPhone 4S handsets combined over the weekend, it was no surprise that the store didn't have any of her chosen phone in stock.
Harsh then asked if she could preorder the phone. No dice, Verizon representatives said. The company's computer system wouldn't allow it because of an agreement with Apple.
So Harsh left without a new phone, hoping to use the offer next time one of Verizon's Omaha-area stores had an iPhone 4S in stock.
What happened next was most vexing for Harsh.
Tuesday, after a couple of days of being passed back and forth between Verizon customer service reps to find out when they expected a shipment of the iPhone 4S, Harsh got an e-mail from Verizon that revoked the original offer.
The message's headline: "Our sincere apologies. We got a bit ahead of ourselves."
The note went on to cancel the terms of the prior offer, which, Verizon said in a statement Wednesday, were e-mailed to an unknown number of customers nationwide. As a peace offering, Verizon offered customers who got the earlier solicitations a 30 percent discount coupon on accessories on everything except products from Apple and Bose, which makes high-end headphones and speakers.
In the statement, Verizon said the first offers were sent out in error.
"The letter customers received offering them an upgrade was an error," Verizon said. "The error was identified almost immediately and a retraction e-mail was sent to customers, apologizing for the error. It is an error we regret and we apologize to customers for the inconvenience."
But Verizon might be facing contractual obligations to honor the original offer to customers who attempted to claim it before the cancellation message landed in their inboxes.
Under normal contract law principles, the offer should remain valid for customers like Harsh who went into Verizon stores to redeem the offer, said Michaela White, a law professor who teaches contract law and other courses at Creighton University.
The power to revoke an offer, White said, is lost once the person who was offered the deal accepts.
Others with an understanding of standard contract laws thought differently about the situation.
Terry Maher, a partner at the Baird Holm law firm in Omaha, said that since the offer had the term "subject to change without notice" in the fine print, Verizon is clear of any legal obligation.
Verizon declined to comment on whether the company is contractually obligated to honor the offers, but said customers with questions should call a company hotline at 800-922-0204.
Harsh said Verizon should honor its original offer. "All I'm doing is purchasing a $200 phone with a plan that exceeds $100 a month. If Verizon should get the (iPhone 4S) in the store, I'm going to try to go in and get it."
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