The typical going-out-of-business sale promises extraordinary savings on a wide range of products. When the sales come near a gift-giving holiday, such as Christmas, they are even more alluring to bargain hunters.
Unfortunately, the actual savings don't always live up to the claims.
One case in point is the going-out-of-business sale now under way at Woolco Department Stores, which have been advertising 30 percent off all stock.
In suburban Maryland, where there are six Woolco stores, consumer officials have found examples of overpricing on about one-third of the products surveyed. The overpriced merchandise was marked 11 to 29 percent more than it should have been, they said.
When the three stores in Fairfax County were checked last week, about one-fourth of the 60 items surveyed were found not to live up to promised savings.
One item was a microwave oven, which investigators said had a 30 percent discount based on a regular price of $249.95, resulting in the consumer paying $174.96. But the discount should have been based on a regular price of $229.95, resulting in the consumer paying $160.96, or $14 less than Woolco was charging, investigators said.
Woolco officials have denied any wrongdoing, and consumer officials have said the overpricing apparently reflects store management policies that permit each store to set its own prices to compete with local retail stores. Consumer agencies' spokesmen said they found no evidence of a conspiracy.
Although a business can have a final sale and close without obtaining a special going-out-of-business sale license, the company can't advertise such a sale without the license.
The agency issuing the license typically requires the store to file information on the corporate owners, purpose of the sale, period the sale will cover and list of inventory items covered by the sale.
"If a company has a going-out-of-business sale, consumers go because they think they can get a good buy," said Nellie Miller, chief investigator for the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs. By requiring the license, the agency can check on the sale and the merchandise being offered to "make sure they don't bring in lower-quality products," Miller said.
The license also covers a specific period to prevent a continuous going-out-of-business sale, she said.
The Woolco sales are among the largest and latest of the closing sales held in the Washington area in recent months as an increasing number of businesses hit by high interest rates and low sales volume have closed.
Prince George's County, for example, has issued 22 permits this year for going-out-of-business sales, compared with 17 last year and 12 the year before. Montgomery County has issued 14 this year, compared with seven in each of the past two years.
Fairfax County issued 26 during the last fiscal year, compared with 20 the year before and six the previous year. An exception to that trend was found in the District, where five permits were issued this year compared with seven last year and nine the year before.
Consumers seeking a true bargain at any going-out-of-business sale must rely on one solution: comparison shopping, especially on big-ticket items. That way, you can make sure the going-out-of-business price is less than the price you would pay somewhere else, such as a catalogue store, a department store or a regular store with a special sale price.
In addition to price considerations, consumer officials say shoppers who go to a closing sale should find out about:
Refunds and returns. Sales often are final at a closing sale, so you may not be able to get a refund or exchange the item if you change your mind or discover that the bargain dress has a tear in the sleeve.
Warranties. You may be able to get the manufacturer to honor the warranty on major purchases, such as a television or a refrigerator. But once the store closes, you may have no practical way to recover your loss on smaller items, such as a child's coat that falls apart after the first washing.