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Deceptive Advertising

The world wide web has obviously revolutionized shopping. While newspaper advertising and direct mail catalogs are still a major part of the retail picture, the internet -- especially in this pandemic era -- has become where America does its shopping.

The Federal Trade Commission has published guidelines about pricing, but these are violated at least as often as not.

Items are frequently posted as being “on sale”, with a higher price (generally but not always with a strikeout line through it) and a lower price next to it, as if to imply the retailer usually charges that higher price but, for a limited time, the item in question is being offered at this lower price.

"Sale”, “special”, “limited time only”, and even something as innocuous was “was” are often posted to lead the consumer to believe that they are encountering a “sale”.

So what is a sale, really?

A sale is a temporary decrease in the price you actually pay when money changes hands for the purchase of an item. After a reasonable amount of time, a “sale price” isn’t a sale price, it’s a regular price.

Often, to bolster the sale claim, that higher price with the line through it might have a descriptive term next to it, such as “regular price”, “old price” or “was”. Generally, the higher price is just posted with the line through it, the implication being either that this used to be the price you paid, or that this is the price you would likely pay elsewhere for this very same item.

Another deceptive price tactic is to call something “list price”, “MSRP” (manufacturer’s suggested retail price), or simply “retail”, the implication being significant sales of the product at this higher price are being made by other retailers, and/or that the manufacturer has set the purchase price at that higher amount. When this tactic is in play, the actual point of sale price will often be called “our price” or “your price”, which implies that this price is not what the buyer will find on other websites selling this very same item.

In addition, other price deceptions are often utilized, including (but not limited to) fictional former prices, sale items that never were offered at what the retailer calls “regular price”, and other similar tactics.

When we investigate a claim of price deception, we ask ourselves a few questions:

  • What would any reasonable person infer about this price when looking at this webpage?
  • How long has this sale been going on?
  • Did this retailer ever offer this item at or near the higher price?
  • Has any retailer?

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