The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With deceptive ‘discounts,’ retailers are manipulating us to spend more. Here are the worst offenders.

(Hal Mayforth/For The Washington Post)

Mailed ads, newspaper inserts, online banners, emails, in-store displays and price tags scream for your attention: “SALE! 60% OFF!” or “This weekend only: Save an extra 40%!” or “[Insert your favorite holiday] special savings!” or “Regular price: $299. Our price: $199.”

Many of these claims aren’t really discounts at all, but attempts to mislead.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s researchers tracked prices of big-ticket items sold at major retailers for 10 months and found disturbing pricing practices at 17 of the 19 studied. At these stores, many sale prices — even those that advertise big savings — are in place more than half the time. And at some stores, the “sales” never end: For several chains, Checkbook found that most items it tracked were offered at a discount every week or almost every week. In other words, the “regular price” listed on all those price tags is seldom, if ever, the price customers pay. And if there is no “regular price,” there’s no sale, either.

Discounts are intended to get you to buy items right away while they’re “on sale” or soon face higher prices. They dissuade you from shopping around for a better price — after all, if something is offered at a 60 percent discount, what’s the point of comparing prices elsewhere? Ultimately, discounts are designed to make you feel so good about the prices you pay that you’ll snap up more stuff while you’re at it.

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Beginning in March 2017, Checkbook’s researchers tracked the prices offered by 19 national chains for 20 big-ticket items at each store, checking once per week for 44 weeks. This expanded on similar research performed in 2014 and 2015, when Checkbook tracked prices at Best Buy, Costco, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Sears and Target for 40 weeks. The practice now appears to be more widespread.

Although Checkbook found that almost all the stores it checked often advertise misleading sales, some have more egregious pricing practices than others. For J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Sears, the items tracked were offered at sale prices more than 75 percent of the time. For example, at Neiman Marcus and Sears, 10 of the items tracked at both retailers were on sale every week for 10 months.

But nearly all the stores at which Checkbook shopped are guilty of some sales-price chicanery — among them, only Costco and Bed Bath & Beyond consistently conducted legitimate sales, meaning any discounts were in place less than half the time. The other 17 retailers as a group marked their items “on sale” 57 percent of the time.

Some retailers suggest that their sale prices represent steep discounts, marking items as being on sale for 50 percent or more off regular prices. This can make customers think the “sale” offers them a fantastic deal. But often items are available elsewhere for lower prices.

Here’s Checkbook’s judgment on sales offered by each of the 19 stores:

Worst offenders

•J.C. Penney




•Neiman Marcus


Often misleading

•Banana Republic

•Best Buy



•Home Depot



•Office Depot/OfficeMax


Sometimes misleading



Reliably legitimate

•Bed Bath & Beyond


So what can shoppers do to protect themselves from these deceptive sales practices?

Don’t assume that a sale price is a good price. The store probably offers that price — or an even lower one — much of the time.

Shop around. Is it a good deal? The only way to know is to compare prices offered by other retailers. In Checkbook’s evaluations of local businesses, it regularly finds big store-to-store price differences for the same items; it’s not uncommon for stores to charge twice as much as their nearby competitors for the same product. A quick Internet search will usually help you determine whether a store’s price is low or high. Shopping bots such as and Yahoo Shopping can also be helpful.

Don’t fall for stores’ manipulative tricks. All the bogus sales and discounts are designed to make you feel good about what you’re paying for something and persuade you to buy now and buy more. Even if you get a genuinely great deal, don’t let those savings push you to spend more on other stuff. And don’t buy something just because it’s “on sale.”

If you find a lower price online, ask for a price match. Checkbook’s shoppers found that many stores will match lower prices offered by their competitors, even if the other seller is an online store. Just use your smartphone or take along a printout of your deal to ask for a match.

Take your time. Even if an item you’re thinking about buying really is on sale, many stores will agree to hold their lower price for you beyond the end of the sale. Just ask.

Call or email stores to get competitive bids. Manufacturers for many big-ticket products (appliances, electronics, etc.) use “minimum advertised pricing,” or MAP. Designed to boost profits and squelch competition, these policies require retailers to advertise product prices at or above preset minimums. Because of MAP, you won’t obtain the best prices on most major brands of appliances from online searches or sales circulars. But MAP policies don’t apply to prices quoted to customers in person, over the phone or via email. Stores — particularly independent stores — often quote appliance prices below MAP if they know that’s what it will take to close a deal.

Check for ratings. Checkbook’s advice and ratings of stores and other local service providers help you find the best deals from the best stores and companies. Through a special arrangement with The Washington Post, you can access all of Checkbook’s ratings free of charge until April 15 by using this link:­WashingtonPost/Sale-Fail.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and are a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate.

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