How to Avoid Being Suckered by a Store’s Fake ‘Sale’

Some of the country’s biggest retailers deceive shoppers by manipulating price tags. Here’s how to avoid buying into a bad sale price.

If you’ve ever thought that a certain product is always on sale at a certain store, you might be right.

Some of the country’s biggest brick-and-mortar and online retailers manipulate sales prices in a way that amounts to “deceptive advertising practices” and, in some cases, violations of federal law, according to research by the Center for the Study of Services, aka Consumer Checkbook.

The center reached this conclusion after tracking six to 10 big-ticket items from last summer through March at Amazon.com and these retailers:

  • Best Buy
  • Costco
  • Home Depot
  • Kohl’s
  • Macy’s
  • Sears
  • Target

Sears had what the center says were “the most egregious always-on-sale pricing practices.”

Two of the nine items the nonprofit tracked at Sears were on sale for all 44 weeks they were watched: the KitchenAid Artisan series 5-quart stand mixer in empire red and the La-Z-Boy Cantina Reclina-Rocker.

With the exception of one product, all items tracked at Sears were “always or almost always listed at sales prices.”

According to the center:

During the rare times Sears sold items at their regular prices, they were still listed as being on sale. During these times, Sears simply omitted the item’s regular price.

While seemingly permanent sales prices might seem like a win for consumers, the center states that such pricing practices can cause consumers to unwittingly overspend:

Most items [at Sears] are shown as being on sale for 40 percent or more off their regular prices, leading customers to believe the current sale offers them fantastic deals. The opposite is usually the case: Many items sold by Sears can be purchased [at] lower prices elsewhere.

After Sears, the center determined that Kohl’s and then Macy’s were the worst offenders.

Kohl’s and Macy’s did not respond to the center’s requests for comment, according to the nonprofit. A Sears spokesperson emailed that the company does “not publicly discuss the details of our pricing strategy. However, we can confirm that Sears complies with applicable pricing laws.”

The center disagrees, citing rules established by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency tasked with protecting consumers:

FTC rules and many state laws bar advertising and pricing practices that are meant to lure consumers into believing they are getting a bargain when they are not, and that’s clearly what Sears (and often Kohl’s and Macy’s) are doing here.

To protect yourself against these “sales” practices, the center recommends you:

  • Don’t assume that a sales price is a sales price. And definitely don’t jump to the conclusion that it must be the best price.
  • Use your smartphone and a price comparison website or app. This helps ensure you get the best price.
  • Request a price quote. Some manufacturers have policies for minimum advertised prices, which prevent retailers from advertising their products below a preset price. The policies don’t apply to price quotes provided in person, by phone or by email, however.
  • Request a price match. According to the center, “Many stores will match lower prices offered by their competitors, even if the other seller is an online store. Just use your smartphone or take along a printout of your deal to ask for a match.”

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Stacy Johnson

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