The January "white sale" at one Washington-area retail store promised savings of up to 50 percent and more on "seconds."
The ad for the "bargain hunters' sale" at another local store listed the "comparable retail" price of $230 for jackets and then the store's special price of $39.99 -- a savings of $190.01 for the consumer, the ad noted.
And then there was the ad for the "last three days" of a sale at a store that is closing after 45 years in business. "Everything must be sold," said the signs in the windows of the store's downtown building. The merchandise was priced "25 to 60 percent off and more."
These are among the pitches and promises that hit Washington-area consumers in January, the second biggest sales month of the year after the Thanksgiving weekend.
From the warehouse sales to the inventory clearances, the advertisements sing a song of savings.
But do the ads live up to what they offer -- or seem to offer?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no, according to government officials and business leaders. "It will depend on the reputation of the store with which you are dealing," said Douglas Tindal, president of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington.
Even when the store has a long and honorable record, errors and false implications can creep into advertisements by mistake -- "because we are human," one Washington-area chain official said.
Although the ads sometimes do mean what they say, many consumers nevertheless are skeptical whether stores deliver the bargains that are bannered in their ads and in their window signs.
"That's just to get you into the store," said Carolyn Johnson, 27, as she walked out of one downtown sale where window signs proclaimed in large letters "1/2 off" and then -- in smaller print -- listed items to which that reduction applied.
Johnson, who lives in Lanham, said she continues to shop at stores featuring sales, despite her doubts that the values are as great as the signs, flyers and advertisements indicate. "I look at what they say and I look at the prices in the store and then I decide for myself," she said.
Consumer suspicions such as Johnson's have prompted both federal and local government in recent years to pass laws against misleading advertising and spurred business booster groups to adopt guidelines that encourage truthful store promotions.
But in the gray world between outright violation and advertising hype it still is up to the buyer to beware, especially of such expressions as:
"Savings of up to 60 percent" (or any other high percentage). "Stores really shouldn't do that," said the BBB's Tindal. "We recommend that they use a range of the savings, such as 10 to 30 percent, rather than up to 30 percent."
At least 10 percent of the store's sale merchandise should represent a savings of 30 percent before the store advertises 10 to 30 percent off, Tindal said. But he explained that "the unscrupulous -- one advertising up to 80 percent off, for example -- might have one item marked off 80 percent and the rest be only 5 percent off."
"Comparable price or list price." "This is a much abused term," Tindal said. "They may say the list price is $100 while their price is $60, but we find quite often that nobody in town sells that item for the $100 list price." He described the list price as "just something the manufacturer suggested that it sell for."
"Warehouse sale." "Unless it is in a warehouse, we discourage use of that word," Tindal said. "It connotes to the customer that he is getting the merchandise at the warehouse or wholesale price." For the same reasons, BBB objects to the use of "factory-to-you" price promises made by a retailer.
"Never undersold." "Nobody can make that claim and be accurate," Tindal said. "Any time we have checked up on those claims we always have found someone [other than the advertiser] with a lower price. So we urge stores to avoid superlatives like that."
"Going-out-of-business sales." Because those are magic words that often attract large crowds of shoppers, retailers that are not going out of business at all will sometimes imply in their ads that they are, said one representative of the Greater Washington Board of Trade retail section.
Many jurisdictions require a store to obtain a permit before it has a going-out-of-business sale, so it is possible for consumers to find out for themselves if the sale is legitimate by asking for the license number. The District of Columbia, for example, requires a store to obtain a license stating the opening and closing dates of the going-out-of-business sale and to furnish an inventory of the merchandise to be sold at the sale. No new merchandise is supposed to be ordered by the store in expectation of the sale.Only stores that have filed these inventories and obtained the license are allowed to say in their advertising that they are having a "going-out-of-business" sale."
The trade association representative, however, said that merchants who want to circumvent the law and bring in outside merchandise for a "going-out-of-business sale" could do so easily.
"The law is very hard to prosecute," he said, because it is nearly impossible to nab a store owner slipping in merchandise for such sales.
Moreover, the law varies, depending on where the business is located. For example, Montgomery County requires a store to have a license for a going-out-of-business sale in unincorporated areas of the county. But some of the incorporated cities within Montgomery County, such as Rockville, don't require any license at all for such sales.
Because of the confusion that can result from advertising, many Washington-area stores have devised ways to convey word of a sale to their customers without misleading them.
An increasing number of stores, for example, now distinguish between regular stock merchandise that has been marked down for a sale and "special merchandise" that was purchased by the store for a special sale. That distinction may appear in the store ad and on a sign in the store.
Some stores also tell customers when the merchandise on sale already has been marked down several times. The existence of those earlier markdowns may be denoted in store advertisements by an asterisk and a footnote saying "interim" or "intermediate markdowns" were taken.
"Suppose the original price was $20 and now it is on sale for $9.99," said William D. McDonald Jr., vice president of marketing for Woodward & Lothrop. "That sounds great, but unless we tell the customer that there have been intermediate markdowns -- that it was on a sale once before for $15 -- she or he may feel that they have been misled when they come into the store and see the price tag that says $20, then $15 and now $9.99."