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 with 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?
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.
This phrase can work like a lie because retailers might have a rather limited definition of what it means to be undersold. For example, they might not match the prices of an online stores or businesses they do not view as direct competition.
Your defense: The best defense for this retailer lie is simply to be skeptical of any vague sales term that sounds good but doesn’t really have much meaning. Above all, do not buy from a retailer and assume it will do an adjustment and refund after a sale unless it is spelled out in their written price-match policy.
4. Satisfaction guaranteed
The lie: This one is a lot like the lifetime warranty. It could mean many things once you examine the fine print.
The FTC businessperson’s guide explains a satisfaction guarantee in this way.
The guides advise that, regardless of the price of the product, advertising terms such as “satisfaction guaranteed” or “money back guarantee” should be used only if the advertiser is willing to provide full refunds to customers when, for any reason, they return the merchandise.
In practice, that refund could come with all sorts of strings attached. It could be your satisfaction is guaranteed for only two weeks. Or maybe your refund is subject to a restocking fee and only comes after you pay return postage for online purchases.
One of the tidbits I learned as a copywriter is that you should always offer a satisfaction or money-back guarantee. It boosts sales because it increases consumer confidence in their purchase, but relatively few unhappy people are willing to jump through the hoops needed to get their money back.
Your defense: As with other retailer half-truths, your defense is to not believe everything you read. Remain skeptical of the terms “risk-free” and “no obligation.” Along with “satisfaction guaranteed” and “money-back guarantee,” these terms are intended to pull your guard down and lure you into a purchase you might not otherwise make.
5. It is FREE
The lie: Nothing from a retailer is truly free. Stores are in business to make money, so everything they do is geared toward making a sale.
Yes, that initial shipment of acne cream may be free, but do not be shocked when boxes start arriving monthly on your doorstep.
Of course, you might argue the free hot dog lunch offered at the furniture store really does not have any strings attached. I will concede you do not have to worry about automatic shipments or mystery payments to your credit card. But stores only run promos that get results.
The furniture shop would not offer a free lunch if the sales staff did not think there was a good chance they could convince you to walk away with a bedroom set, too.
Your defense: There are two ways to defend yourself again the free item that really isn’t free.
First is to be aware of the catch. Anytime you are offered a free meal or a prize in exchange for attending an event, expect that you will be asked to buy something. Decide if you can go to the event, take the freebie and walk away guilt-free.
The second defense involves many of the free items you find online. I am not talking about coffee or detergent samples, but the websites that claim they will send you free, full-size products. Before requesting a free offer online, do all of the following:
- Check the fine print to see whether you are agreeing to regular automatic shipments or subscribing to a service as a result of requesting the free item.
- If the free item is a trial offer, find out how long you have to cancel and how you notify the company. Can you do it online or do you need to call? You may want to do an internet search for reviews of the company and see if others have had difficulty canceling.
- During the checkout process, be on the lookout for offers from third parties. Some websites will make you scroll through pages of offers before confirming your order. These may be defaulted to the yes option. Read carefully and uncheck any boxes opting you into services you do not want.
- Some free offers require that you enter a credit or debit card number to pay for shipping and handling. Consider using a prepaid card with limited funds for this purpose.
Do you know of other ways retailers bend the truth? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.