Kevin Brasler, executive editor at Consumers’ Checkbook, a publication from the Center for the Study of Services, a nonprofit consumer-research organization, Washington, DC. Checkbook.org
Answer: When there’s always a sale—and that happens all the time, according to the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook. New research shows that virtually all major retailers place products on near-permanent sale, a practice that’s both deceptive and illegal.
Whether you shop online or in stores, you often encounter a “regular price” that’s been crossed out and replaced by a lower “sale price.” Retailers hope these markdowns will encourage customers to snap up the savings.
Savvy shoppers know that some items go on sale so often that there is no need to rush. The “regular price” on the price tag or website rarely, if ever, seems to be in effect.
Recent finding: Researchers at Consumers’ Checkbook tracked sale prices at 25 major retailers for 33 weeks. Conclusion: Virtually every one of the retailers had large numbers of products that were “on sale” more than 50% of the time…and a substantial number of products were “on sale” 100% of the time.
Worst of these fake-sale offenders: Foot Locker, Old Navy, Wayfair and Banana Republic. With these retailers, most of the “sale” items tracked were rarely or never priced at “regular price.” Examples: Of the 30 sale items tracked at Foot Locker, 29 were on sale every time the researchers checked. The “sale price” practices of Dick’s, Gap, JCPenney and Amazon were nearly as egregious.
This is illegal—Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations state that retailers cannot present a price as the regular price unless that is the prevailing price charged for the item by that retailer.
The only major retailer that was not found to engage in this pricing practice was Apple, but that’s largely because Apple rarely offers sale prices of any sort.
Costco’s sales also tended to be real—only five of the 27 Costco sale items tracked were on sale more than half of the time. Sale prices at Target and Walmart were somewhat more likely to be legitimate than those of other major retailers as well.
What to do: If you’re tempted by a sale, use your smartphone to confirm that the price is less than you would pay for this item at other retailers and/or at other times. Entering the item’s name into a search engine often will produce this information. Or try the online price-comparison tool PriceGrabber.com…or CamelCamelCamel.com, which tracks the historical prices of items sold on Amazon.com.