9 Retailers with ‘Usually Misleading’ Sale Prices

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Are you actually getting a great bargain when you see a reduced price? Consumers’ Checkbook, a project of the non-profit Center for the Study of Services, suggests that you probably aren’t.

In a recent Consumers’ Checkbook survey of 25 national retailers, the legitimacy of their advertised prices — as determined by how frequently they were offered — was often questionable. Consumers’ Checkbook studied the prices of 33 items for 33 weeks and found that frequently, they weren’t actually bargains. 

According to a summary of the organization’s findings:

“Often, these fake sales never end: For eight of the 25 retailers, our shoppers found more than half the items we tracked for each were offered at false discounts every week or almost every week we checked. In other words, at many retailers, the ‘regular price’ or ‘list’ price is seldom, if ever, what customers pay.”

Avoid Misleading Pricing

With the busy shopping season ahead, here are a few things you can do to avoid falling victim to misleading pricing:

  1. Before buying a product, do some research to understand its original price. If a product appears to be on sale by 30%, don’t simply believe it. According to David Ngwe in his Harvard Research, “Some online research — looking at reviews, comparison shopping — can be helpful.” Before swiping your card, know exactly what that product has historically cost. Chances are, the “sales” price is the year-round price.
  2. Before you make a purchase, consider what you think the item is worth.
  3. When you‘re shopping online, review the retailers’ shipping and return policies.
  4. Make sure to review the fine print on ads. Black Friday ads usually have date ranges and excluded items. Additionally, the offer may only be available in-store or online, or there may be purchase limits and warranty limits.

According to Consumer Checkbooks’ analysis, the following retailers are most and least likely to mislead buyers:

9 Retailers with ‘Usually Misleading’ Sale Prices

Consumers’ Checkbook says the following retailers’ advertised sale prices are “usually misleading”:

  • Amazon
  • Banana Republic
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods
  • Foot Locker
  • Gap
  • Nordstrom
  • Old Navy
  • Wayfair
  • Williams Sonoma

According to the Consumers’ Checkbook, the items most frequently tracked in this category were always on sale or almost always.

Hot Tip: Make sure to check online prices before shopping in-store. Many retailers will honor online pricing if the item is cheaper online.

12 Retailers with ‘Often Misleading’ Sale Prices

According to Consumers’ Checkbook, the following companies’ advertised discounts are “often misleading”:

  • Best Buy
  • Dell
  • Home Depot
  • JCPenney
  • Kohl’s
  • Lowe’s
  • Macy’s
  • Michaels
  • Office Depot
  • Overstock
  • Staples
  • Walmart

Consumers’ Checkbook reported that the number of fake sales has increased over the past four years, with more stores participating in the practice. Here’s the summary of findings:

“Some retailers suggest their prices represent steep discounts, marking items on sale for 50 percent or more off regular prices. This can make customers think the ‘sale’ offers them a fantastic deal. The opposite is usually the case: We discovered that most items can be purchased for lower prices elsewhere.”

One Retailer with ‘Sometimes Misleading’ Sale Prices

Consumers’ Checkbook says Target’s sale prices are “sometimes misleading” based on its analysis. It says the retailer is “a borderline case”:

“Ten of the 25 items we tracked for it were on sale at least 50 percent of the time; overall, the items we tracked at Target were on sale 49 percent of the time.”

Some things are always a good deal at Target, no matter how legitimate the sales are.

3 Retailers with “Legitimate” Sale Prices

Based on its analysis, Consumers’ Checkbook found the following retailer’s sale prices are legitimate discounts.

  • Apple
  • Bed Bath & Beyond
  • Costco

Consumers’ Checkbook claims that stores that boast of phony sales are actually violating Federal Trade Commission regulations. Their summary of their findings claims:

“The law says stores can’t claim to offer items at a discount if the displayed ‘regular’ or ‘list’ prices weren’t offered for a reasonable amount of time. Our research continues to prove that most stores constantly violate the law by displaying dishonest ‘list’ prices that they rarely, if ever, charge.”

Bottom Line

A sale price means something different for every retailer. The only way to know you are getting a good deal is to shop around and compare prices at different stores. You should never buy just because a store has a sale; instead, shop for the best prices on similar items.