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Consumers' Checkbook: Sales are rarely deals

FILE – Shoppers walk past sale signs in an outdoor shopping area on Black Friday. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
FILE – Shoppers walk past sale signs in an outdoor shopping area on Black Friday. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
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No matter the weekend or time of year, retailers seem to always be offering a big sale. But how much of a discount are consumers really getting, especially if those retailers never really sell the product for the original price?

Research done by a consumer advocacy group found that sales prices are rarely deals.

"Our natural inclination is to say they're offering this thing for 60% off. It says it's a sales event, I better buy this before this special price goes away and also, I better not shop around," said Kevin Brasler, executive editor with Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook.

For nearly 10 years, researchers at Consumers' Checkbook have been tracking sales prices at national retail chains. They're finding more and more retailers are playing the sales game.

"They're showing you a price, they're crossing that price out and saying they're offering you some steep discount off of it when, in fact, they rarely, if ever, charge that," added Brasler.

Last February, researchers started tracking the prices offered by 25 national chains for 25 items at each store once per week for 33 weeks. They found that most store's sales prices are bogus discounts.

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"All but three of the retailers we found that week after week the sales just never ended that for some of the products we checked in on every single one of the products we checked was on sale every single week we checked. At others, it was on sale more than half the time," said Brasler.

Apple, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Costco are the three retailers that researchers found offered legitimate sales. All the other retailers that were tracked either had usually misleading sales, often misleading sales, and sometimes misleading sales. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), these near-constant sales are illegal.

"When they tell you, ‘Oh, here's a list price or a regular price,’ and they cross it out and show a lower price next to it, but they never or rarely charge that initial price. “That's against the law," explained Brasler.

Brasler said they asked the FTC if they are aware of any FTC actions against companies using these illegal sales prices. He said none would comment on the record. He also said Consumers' Checkbook couldn't find any instance in the last 40 years of the FTC enforcing its own rules on this.

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Below are a couple shopping tips to avoid falling for bogus sales:

  • Don't assume that a sales price is a good price.
  • Shop around.
  • If you find a lower price online ask to price match.
  • Take your time and don't be in a rush.
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