"Tracking the sales" is a way of life for some people, ranging from obligatory social outings to simply a chance to "beat the economy."

We all love a bargain. The stores are full of them at this time of year. Back-to-school sales, half-yearly furniture clearances, special purchase sales on fall fashions.

But what is "a sale?"

What constitutes a "special purchase?"

What's an "original" price . . . the same as a "regular" price?

Retail jargon often leaves customers confused. The following retail sales definitions set forth by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should help clarify and define retail sales practices. Kept in mind, they'll help make comparison shopping worth the time and effort and can help form judgments about the quality of the merchandise . . . and the merchant.

A sale price, by law, must reflect a significant reduction in the regular price of merchandise actually sold by that merchant in reasonable quantity. (A reduction in price from $10 to 9.99 is NOT a sale.)

The term original price indicates that there has been a further reduction in the price of an item already on sale. (Regularly priced at $10, on sale at $7.99, then further reduced to $6.99 can be offered as "Sale $6.99, Originally $10.") The FTC requires that merchandise thus offered on sale carry the clarification that "intermediate markdowns have been taken on all original prices."

A special purchase sounds like something you can't refuse. Actually it's something the store's buyer couldn't refuse. It's a low price placed on the merchandise by the manufacturer or wholesaler that enables the store to offer it to customers at a special price. It has not been marked down or put on sale. A $40 skirt that's a "special purchase" usually will not be as good a value as a skirt made to sell regularly for $50 and reduced legitimately to $40.

Comparable value indicates the regular price of an item within a specified trading area. It's usually the price of essentially the same (comparable) merchandise being sold by the store's competitors. It does not necessarily mean that the store itself stocked and sold the merchandise at that price, but simply reflects the prevailing price that could be expected at other stores in the area.

In accordance with its jurisdiction over retail pricing and advertising the FTC also offers these guidelines:

* Irregular or imperfect merchandise is flawed--but only slightly, and imperfections will not affect appearance or wear. Such merchandise must be disclosed in advertising as "imperfect"; comparative prices must read "if perfect."

* Availability must be stated in advertising. If a store offers savings, no matter what the variety, or if the store is simply advertising nonsale merchandise but does not stock the merchandise in all stores, that fact must be made clear in the ad. ("Not available in our Virginia stores.")

* Consolidation sale refers to the location of the sale and nothing more. It means that one classification of sale-priced merchandise (women's sportswear, for instance) has been consolidated from many to one location in the store. The prices may or may not have been further reduced, but there is the added convenience of large selection at one location.

A liquidation sale is like a going-out-of-business sale. All merchandise is reduced in price. Check credit and delivery terms before finalizing a sale. Some are cash and carry only.

Bait and switch seems to be on the wane, but there are still some practitioners--so beware. Bait and switch entices a customer with a low price on a particular item. When the customer appears at the store ready to buy the item, interest is turned to a different model at a slightly higher price. The customer is "baited" by the low price and "switched" to a higher-priced model. This tactic is illegal, and the merchant should be reported to the local Consumer Protection Commission.

Often a sale is for a limited time only. That's legal. Just because it was on sale last week doesn't mean that it will still be on sale this week. Timing is important. On the other hand, some merchants have been known--in this tight money market--to meet the price of a competitor on identical merchandise. A good retail value is quality at a price that benefits the customer. Placing merchandise on sale or reducing the price of regularly stocked merchandise is a legitimate business practice that benefits everyone. The merchant clears his inventory for the next season's goods and the customer has an opportunity to save. If he or she shops wisely.