You Can’t Just Write “Sale” on a Product

Photo credit: Ged Carroll, CC BY 2.0.

I know I must have told this story on The Billfold, but it’s worth telling again: when I was fresh out of college and living in big-city Minneapolis for the first time, I had to take a bus downtown and then walk past a handful of retailers to get to work.

I remember thinking, as I walked by the Gap: “how lucky that I’m starting work on the same week that they’re having a sale!”

It took me an evening of browsing to figure out that I couldn’t yet afford Gap clothes, not even on sale. (I bought most of my clothes at Savers.) It took me about two weeks to figure out that the Gap was always having a sale.

It made me wonder if the word “sale” even meant anything. As it turns out, it does:

Class Action Over The Meaning Of ‘Sale’ Means Harbor Freight Customers Get Refunds

Have you shopped at any of discount tool chain Harbor Freight’s 750 U.S. stores recently? A recent class action settlement over the chain’s understanding of how a “sale” works means that customers can get refunds that range from 10% to 30% of whatever they spent at the store, or a $10 gift card.

The lawsuit alleged that Harbor Freight slapped “Sale” and “Compare at” tags on items that weren’t actually sold at that price for long enough. For an item to be considered on sale, the item must have had that original price for at least 28 of the preceding 90 days.

I followed that link back to the U.S. Government Publishing Office, and although I couldn’t find the “for at least 28 of the preceding 90 days” stat, I did find a really fascinating list of rules about what a sale can and cannot be, aka the “Guide to Deceptive Pricing:”

The following is an example of a price comparison based on a fictitious former price. John Doe is a retailer of Brand X fountain pens, which cost him $5 each. His usual markup is 50 percent over cost; that is, his regular retail price is $7.50. In order subsequently to offer an unusual “bargain”, Doe begins offering Brand X at $10 per pen. He realizes that he will be able to sell no, or very few, pens at this inflated price. But he doesn’t care, for he maintains that price for only a few days. Then he “cuts” the price to its usual level — $7.50 — and advertises: “Terrific Bargain: X Pens, Were $10, Now Only $7.50!” This is obviously a false claim. The advertised “bargain” is not genuine.

The entire document is worth a read, which is something that doesn’t usually get said about federal regulations. But now I know a little bit more about how sales work—or, at least, how they should work. You might remember last year’s discussion of whether Amazon would remove the very likely inflated “list prices” from its third-party sellers’ listings:

Amazon Might Be Rethinking the “List Price”

It does look like those list prices are gone, which means we’ll never again believe that we’re getting a $500 dress that definitely looks like the one in the picture for only $19.95.

And, if you believe you might have bought inappropriately labeled sale items from Harbor Freight between April 8, 2011 and December 15, 2016, here’s where you go to learn if you’re eligible to file a claim.

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