When is a sale not a sale? Apparently, when J.C. Penney says so. This month, the department store launched an ambitious experiment with its new “Fair and Square” pricing. Instead of having perpetual sales like most department stores, Penney has cut suggested retail prices by 40 percent, offering lower “everyday prices.”

While there will still be month-long discounts on certain items, such as jewelry in February and “best prices” on some clearance items, Penney’s strategy calls for fewer sale stickers.

Penney’s new chief executive, Ron Johnson, who launched Apple’s retail stores, told the Associated Press that the idea is for “customers to shop on their terms, not ours.”

But will customers buy it? “It’s a highly innovative strategy, but it’s risky,” said Rafi Mohammed, a pricing strategy consultant and author of “The 1% Windfall: How Successful Companies Use Price to Profit and Grow.” Shoppers have become accustomed to a system whereby “they know Kohl’s and Macy’s are having sales every week.”

So how do Penney’s everyday prices compare to sale prices at its competitors? Last weekend, we took a very unscientific shopping trip to Springfield to visit Kohl’s, Macy’s and J.C. Penney.

How do Penney’s everyday prices compare with competitors’ sale prices? We take a very unscientific shopping trip to Springfield to visit J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Macy’s. (Scott Olson/GETTY IMAGES)

The results are in: Penney’s everyday prices were comparable to clearance items elsewhere, proving that stores know the bottom-line price you’re willing to pay — whether a product’s on sale or not. From men’s Levi’s to basic white bath towels, here were the going rates.

Men’s Levi’s Jeans

Whether you were buying 505s or 569s, men’s Levi’s jeans at J.C. Penney were $40. Any style, any size. At Macy’s, Levi’s 569 jeans were on sale for $42.99, down from $54. Similarly, Levi’s at Kohl’s were on sale for $42.99, originally $58.

Conclusion: J.C. Penney had a better selection and consistent prices, making it easier for men to shop for the necessity.

Women’s Knit Sweaters

Need a heavy knitted sweater in a solid color? All three stores had similar sweaters priced from $20 to $25. Kohl’s and Macy’s were originally priced at $50 and marked half off, while J.C. Penney had Liz Claiborne sweaters priced between $20 and $30. The styles and fabrics were nearly identical, but the brands differed, which often affects a shopper’s decision.

Conclusion: There wasn’t enough of a price variation to make a difference. Buy your favorite brand, whether its Liz Claiborne or Simply Vera by Vera Wang.

The Junior Headband

Every department store had a version of the peacock-feathered headband. J.C. Penney had the cheapest ones, at $10 to $12 and made by Arizona and Decree. Kohl’s had similar headbands by Candies at $20 each; two for $30. Macy’s had the most sophisticated feather headbands, at $22.

Conclusion: Macy’s juniors’ department tends to offer higher-end products at higher prices. If you’re looking for a fashion statement, choose Macy’s. If you’re looking for something your teenage daughter can misplace, go to J.C. Penney.

The Basic Bath Towel

Where do you go if you want a cheap bath towel? Certainly not Macy’s, which sells a plush
micro-cotton Hotel Collection towel for $18. J.C. Penney was the only store selling cheap, cotton towels worthy of your gym bag — in every color for $4. Kohl’s had the best deal this week, with “The Big One” cotton towels selling half-off, for $5. They were of slightly higher quality than the Penney’s variety.

Conclusion: For a bath towel fit for your guest bathroom, shop the Kohl’s sale. Go to J.C. Penney if you need to stock your kid’s P.E. bag.

The Newborn Onesie

Your baby is not Blue Ivy Carter. There are times when little John or Jane wears the no-frills white onesie. Kohl’s had a set of three priced at $12.99, marked down from $22. J.C. Penney had three for $10.99. Macy’s had the best deal, with five bodysuits by Little Layette for $15.98.

Conclusion: For children’s basics, the prices and quality were comparable among all the stores. Macy’s has the largest selection of kids’ clothes, and in this case, also had the cheapest.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Prices vary among department stores by narrow margins. If you’re hunting for bargains, you might spend more money in gas going from store to store than you’ll reap in savings. Everyday prices at J.C. Penney were comparable to the sale prices at Macy’s and Kohl’s. Shop the store you like best and remember: Just because it’s on clearance doesn’t mean you’re getting a deal.

Katherine Boyle

On Sale

Designer Doo-Ri Chung, following in the footsteps of Karl Lagerfeld and Giambattista Valli, has partnered with Macy’s to sell a limited collection for the store’s Impulse brand. Priced from $39 to$159, the items will feature art-inspired prints and the designer’s signature draping. Available Wednesday in stores at Tysons Galleria, Pentagon City, Westfield Montgomery Mall and the Mall at Columbia. Online at www.macys.com.

Buy something pink or red and score 20 percent off during Urban Chic’s Valentine’s Day sale. Pick up a Valentine at the register; it will have a discount inside that can be used on non-red/pink items. Monday and Tuesday at Bethesda, Georgetown and Baltimore stores. See www.urbanchiconline.com for hours and addresses.

Forecast on Capitol Hill, which stocks favorite Washingtonian brands Eileen Fisher and Lafayette 148, is selling its winter inventory for up to 50 percent off. Cashmere jackets, once $998 to $1,098, are $499, and chunky cashmere turtlenecks, formerly $710, are $349. Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. 218 Seventh St. SE, 202-547-7337. www.forecaststore.com.

Fur, cashmere and angora blankets, fall-colored linens, and French and Italian ceramic garden pots are selling for 50 to 75 percent off at A Mano, a Georgetown boutique for tableware, home furnishings and decorative accessories. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 1677 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-298-7200. www.amano.bz/generalinfo.html.

— Janet Bennett Kelly