Few stores’ sale prices are really deals
“SALE! 60% OFF!”
“This weekend only: Save an extra 40%!”
“List: $299 Our price: $199”
Consumers’ Checkbook’s researchers spent 33 weeks tracking sale prices at 25 major retailers and found that most stores’ discount claims aren’t really discounts at all, but rather are attempts to mislead. And the shady sales practice is worse than ever before.
Checkbook discovered that most stores’ sale prices — even those that advertise big savings — are bogus discounts, with retailers offering the same “sale price” more than half the time.
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 listed is seldom, if ever, what customers actually pay.
Checkbook found these retailers’ sales were usually misleading: Amazon, Banana Republic, Dick’s, Foot Locker, Gap, Nordstrom, Old Navy, Wayfair and Williams Sonoma.
Checkbook found these retailers’ sales were often misleading: Best Buy, Dell, Home Depot, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Michaels, Office Depot, Overstock, Staples and Walmart.
Checkbook found Target’s sales were sometimes misleading.
And Checkbook found that only three of the 25 retailers offered legitimate sales: Apple, Bed Bath & Beyond and Costco. For the full report, see checkbook.org/washington-area/sale-fail.
Attempts to mislead
By constantly offering items at sale prices — and rarely if ever offering them at regular prices — retailers are engaging in deceptive advertising. The stores are running those special-but-not-really-special discounts to manipulate you into buying items right away.
Although customers may 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.
It’s all designed to make you feel so good about what you pay that you’ll snap up more stuff while you’re at it. If stores can make you feel like you’ve saved a bundle, you might keep right on buying because you can “afford to spend more.”
How prices were checked
Beginning in February 2022, once per week for 33 weeks Checkbook’s researchers tracked the prices offered by 25 national chains for 25-plus items at each store.
This research expands on similar projects we performed in 2015 and 2018, when we spent 40 or more weeks tracking major retailers’ prices.
We found that in the last four years fake sales have become far more prevalent.
Some retailers still have more egregious pricing practices than others. Amazon, Banana Republic, Dick’s, Foot Locker, Gap, Nordstrom, Old Navy, Wayfair, and Williams Sonoma were the naughtiest fake-sale offenders. At these stores, most of the items we tracked were always or almost always on sale.
But nearly all of the 25 stores we tracked were guilty of some sales-price chicanery, advertising sales for the majority of the items we checked more than half the time.
Only Apple, Bed Bath & Beyond and Costco consistently conducted legitimate sales. Target was a borderline case.
The other 21 retailers marked their items “on sale” about 70% of the time, on average, meaning that far more often than not they promoted prices as discounts that weren’t really special.
“List” prices often meaningless
Most retailers we studied poorly disclose how they determine all their crossed-out “list” prices. Those offering explanations typically buried them in the “Terms and Conditions” sections of their websites.
But Amazon, Dell, Macy’s, Target and Walmart provide more transparency: With each, you can hover over list prices or click on nearby icons for definitions of how they determined their (usually crossed-out) “list” or “regular” prices.
Some retailers that provide explanations give silly justifications. Kohl’s takes the prize for most ridiculous; its disclaimer reads, in part, “The Reg. or Orig. price of an item is the former or future offered price for the item or a comparable item by Kohl’s or another retailer. Actual sales may not have been made at the Reg. or Orig. prices, and intermediate markdowns may have been taken…”
In other words, Kohl’s is claiming its discounts are based on prices that it or one of its competitors might have charged in the past or might charge in the future. Does Kohl’s have a time machine?
Excerpted with permission from Washington Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get great service and low prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.
Beacon readers can view Checkbook’s ratings and advice free for 30 days via Checkbook.org/promo/beacon. Also, check out the Consumerpedia podcast for more consumer news you can use at bit.ly.com/consumerpedia.