5 Lies Retailers Tell — and How to Spot Them

Not everything a retailer says is on the up and up. Here are five common ways stores bend the truth, and how you can avoid being taken.

When I began freelance writing, I worked almost exclusively as an advertising copywriter. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which words, placed in exactly the right spot, would make you want to open your wallet and buy whatever my client was selling.

That work offered me a chance to see how some businesses bend the truth to make a sale.

Oh, sure, they may have an asterisk accompanied by the appropriate disclaimers, and that makes it all entirely legal. But once you have read the fine print, you would be forgiven for thinking the company was lying to you.

Following are five fibs retailers tell — and tips for protecting yourself from falling for them.

1. Going out of business

The lie: OK, so it’s not a lie. The store really is going out of business. But that doesn’t mean this will be the sale of the century. In fact, sometimes prices at “going out of business” sales are higher than normal sale prices.

A good example comes from 2009 when electronics chain Circuit City went out of business. Consumer Reports was quick to note the store’s liquidation prices were actually inflated compared to prices found elsewhere.

It makes sense, too. After all, the store is going out of business, and this may be the last chance owners have to get anything close to retail price on their inventory. They would not want to simply give everything away.

Do not let those “70 percent off” signs fool you. Most of them include the small words “up to” before the number, which means you could find that the deeply discounted items are few and far between.

Your defense: The best way to prevent yourself from being taken by these sales is to treat them like any other shopping experience. The store would love you to feel pressured into buying NOW because if you don’t, you’ll lose out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a deal.

You can avoid feeling ripped off later by asking these questions as you load up your cart:

  • Do I really need this item?
  • Would I buy this item at regular price?
  • Is this price actually a deal?

If you’re not sure on that last point, you can use a price comparison app to find out.

2. Lifetime warranty

The lie: A lifetime warranty sounds great, but whose life are we talking about here?

In its “Businessperson’s Guide to Federal Warranty Law,” the Federal Trade Commission suggests the words “lifetime warranty” can be used in three ways. The guide uses the example of a lifetime warranty for a muffler and says any of the following could apply:

  • The muffler is guaranteed for the life of the car upon which it is installed. This means the guarantee is transferred to subsequent owners.
  • The muffler is guaranteed for only so long as the car is owned by the original purchaser. The FTC says this is an “inaccurate application” of the term “lifetime,” but is still commonly used.
  • The muffler is guaranteed so long as the original purchaser is alive, the least common usage.

In other words, a retailer might use the words “lifetime warranty” to convince you an item will last forever when the company really has completely different intentions.

Your defense: The FTC guide suggests the following to business owners:

The guides advise that to avoid confusing consumers about the duration of a “lifetime” warranty or guarantee, ads should tell consumers which “life” measures the warranty’s duration. In that way, consumers will know which meaning of the term “lifetime” you intend.

However, the reality is many companies may not be forthcoming with that information. You might have to scan the fine print or look for disclaimers at the bottom of the page. If you can’t find the answer, ask the retailer and insist the company put it in writing, particularly before a major purchase.

3. We will not be undersold!

The lie: This phrase has always confused me. I am told it apparently represents a price guarantee, meaning the store won’t let someone else sell for a lower price.

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