There's nothing like getting a bargain, but a sale is not always a sale.
Boston Consumers' Checkbook recently tracked prices of big-ticket items sold at major retailers for 44 weeks and found what they call questionable pricing policies at most of the stores. Many of the sale prices, even those advertised as big savings, were bogus discounts, with the same price called a sale price half the time.
"It's been going on for decades," said consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky. "Retailers know that consumers love a bargain, so what do you do? You keep giving consumers bargains, but they tend to be on the same items over and over and that's where you can run afoul of the law."
In Massachusetts, stores are regulated on how they can advertise discounts.
"Basically, the law says if you're going to advertise a discount and claim some savings, you got to have charged the regular price for a substantial period of time, and under the AG's rules, that means about a third of the time in Mass., you have to be at regular price," said Dworsky.
The Attorney General's Office tells NBC10 Boston that they watch for patterns in consumer complaints to help identify unfair and deceptive business practices, and if they see one, they investigate and take action.
Boston Consumers' Checkbook found that only two stores consistently conducted legitimate sales: Bed Bath and Beyond and Costco. They names six stores as the worst offenders, offering the items they tracked at a false discount every week or almost every week that they checked. Those stores are: JCPenney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Sears. We reached out to the stores and heard back from all but two.
JCPenney tells NBC10 Boston that they use a promotional pricing model.
"Anytime an item is put on sale, the item must have been previously sold at its original or regular price for a reasonable period of time," the retailer said.
Macy's says its pricing cadence varies from each item based on the nature and seasonality of the merchandise, its family of business and customer response.
"Some items rarely go on sale prior to clearance," the company said. "Others go on sale more frequently."
Sears Holdings, which includes Kmart said, "Sears disagrees with any suggestion that its pricing is misleading or deceptive. We do not publicly discuss the details of our pricing strategy, however we can confirm that Sears complies with applicable pricing and advertising laws."
Here's what consumers can do:
Don't assume that a sale price is a good price; shop around and use online tools to make sure the price you're paying is really a good deal; and if you find a lower price online, don’t be afraid to ask for a price match.