How to spot sales that are no bargain

Consumer Reports

View photo

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Retailer tricks to lure you to buy may not be real.

These days it seems as if every retailer wants you to think a product is a bargain any time you want to buy it. Walk into just about any department store and you'll probably find a sea of red "sale" signs.

Some retailers have been accused of intentionally misleading shoppers about their sale prices. In 2005, the New York attorney general announced that May Department Stores agreed to pay $400,000 in penalties and costs to settle allegations that its Kaufmann's department stores (since converted to Macy's) ran phony sales promotions. The complaint alleged that merchandise promoted in newspaper, radio, and television ads was always, or almost always, "on sale," so those "sale" prices were actually regular prices.

More from 

Shop smarter this holiday season

Holiday shopping tips

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on Yahoo!


Their discounts are based on inflated prices

We found a coffeemaker "on sale" at Kohl's stores and at for $61.99, a discount from the retailer's posted $69.99 "regular" price. So it has to be a good deal, right?

Not so! We discovered that the manufacturer's suggested retail price is only $59.99. And retailers, especially discount stores, commonly price items below MSRP. We did a simple Web search on the model and found retailers that beat Kohl's deal. The best offer we tracked down was $30.03 plus $8.21 shipping at the Sale Store's website. ('s shipping charge was $8.95.) The difference of more than $30 can buy a lot of coffee to put in that pot.

They charge super-high shipping and handling fees

Sure, online retailers' steep shipping and handling charges can sometimes make you consider ditching a purchase. But did you know that some websites inflate shipping and handling fees to compensate for the deals they're giving you on the item you want to buy? That's especially likely to happen at auction sites like eBay (though it violates their policy) and sites for products advertised on TV infomercials. For example, we recently found an infomercial for a $19.99 Awesome Auger garden tool and "free" drill, weeder, and power extender that actually costs $56.80 after S&H fees are included.

Even reasonable shipping and handling charges can wipe out the savings of a bargain-priced product if the item is inexpensive, large, or heavy. A 500-sheet package of HP multipurpose printer paper at an online office-supply store recently had a price tag of $4.80, much less than the $9.88 that Walmart was charging for the same package. But the savings didn't look so great after we added the $5 delivery charge. We snooped around just a little bit more and found the printer paper advertised for just $5 in the Office Max store flyer.

Their advertised "great deal" stinks

If you've ever paid an advertised "bargain" price, especially on items that retailers will usually negotiate on, like cars or mattresses, you've probably paid way too much. For example, we recently found a California car dealership advertising a 2011 Mazda2 Sport for $14,999. You might assume that's a great price, considering that the manufacturer's suggested retail is $15,530. But it's not. The car-pricing website TrueCar revealed that when the ad was running, local car buyers were paying an average of $14,709 for the same vehicle. Based on TrueCar data, a great price would have been $14,447, or more than $550 less than the advertised deal.

They charge more at liquidation sales

The prices at stores that are going out of business must be better than at stores that are sticking around, right? Guess again. Our visits to going-out-of-business sales have consistently turned up "deals" that were anything but. During our 2009 check of the liquidation sale at national electronics giant Circuit City, we found some prices that were much higher than those in the circular the retailer had planned to use had it not gone belly-up. For example, the weekend the liquidation started, Circuit City had intended to advertise an HP computer printer for $150. So how much was it at the liquidation? Try $270. Even worse, we found it at another retailer for $135. But the checkout lines at the liquidation snaked around the store. Shoppers were eager, in many cases, to pay too much. Prices usually decline as liquidation sales progress. But chances are, by the time there are truly great deals during the last few days, there won't be much left that you'll want to buy.

The bottom line

Just because items are in a "sale" section doesn't mean you can't do a lot better elsewhere. The only way to find out for sure is to shop around, comparing identical items and factoring in shipping and handling fees and any other charges. Don't forget to compare online and walk-in stores, even if they belong to the same retailer. The Web offers many great deals, but sometimes it's cheaper to turn off the computer and grab your car keys.

And don't be shy about trying to haggle, even for products with prices that aren't usually negotiated.

A recent Consumer Reports survey found that seven out of 10 people who tried negotiating for home appliances got a better deal. Those who haggled on large appliances told us they saved an average of $100. That's no chump change.

But remember, price isn't the only thing you should consider. Before buying, especially if you're dealing with a merchant you haven't dealt with in the past, review the retailer's return policies and use a Web search to look for complaints. Also check the retailer on the Better Business Bureau website, at

Dodge gift-card gotchas

Under new federal rules, gift cards must remain valid for at least five years and some fees are limited. For example, inactivity and service fees can be charged only if a card hasn't been used for at least one year.

So if you have any hanging around the house, use them fast! Don't be one of the many people who never get around to spending their gift cards. (One-quarter of Americans we surveyed in October 2009 who received a gift card the previous year said they hadn't yet used their almost-year-old cards.) Also, using your cards fast might help you avoid ending up with a worthless piece of plastic, which can happen if the retailer ends up going out of business.

If you're planning to buy gift cards for people on your holiday shopping list, beware that the cards might be printed with out-of-date information, including expiration dates and fees. The correct info is supposed to be posted at the store, so you should give the recipient a heads-up. Something else you should know is that the new rules don't cover purchase fees. They range from $3 to $7 for the bank-issued variety with a credit-card logo. (Most retailers don't charge a fee to buy their cards.)

Another way to avoid wasting money: Give the gift that you know will be used, never expires, has no fees, and is accepted almost everywhere: cash. Cash not appropriate? If you must resort to buying a gift card, get one from a retailer that you know your recipient adores. That way it's more likely that it will be used, and you won't have to pay a fee to buy it.


ShopSmart;) the unique shopping magazine, offers unbiased, easy-to-read advice on the best brands of household appliances, kitchenware, electronics, and more. Subscribe today!

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

Sorry you didn't like this comment. Please provide a reason below.

Are you sure?
Rating failed. Try again.
Request failed. Try again.
We will promote constructive and witty comments to the top, so everyone sees them!
Sorry, we can’t load comments right now. Try again.

    Recommended for You

    • Mariah Carey 'dumped' by billionaire fiance James Packer but keeping $10m engagement ring

      The fairytale may be over for Mariah Carey and her fiance James Packer with reports claiming the couple have split. The Australian businessman is alleged to have ended his 10-month engagement to the US pop star due to her extravagant spending in the midst of their wedding preparations. Packer, 48, proposed to Carey, 46, in January 2016 after almost a year of dating and presented the Grammy-winning singer with a $10m (£8.1m) engagement ring which he is reportedly allowing her to keep.

      International Business Times ONC UK q
    • Jen Garner Just Found the Season's Hottest Jacket

      For starters, you'll be one step closer to looking as polished as Jennifer does. But the best part about a blazer-cape combo is that it really goes with anything—most notably your eveningwear. It's not a knit cape, which lacks structure and tends to have a cozy, off-duty vibe. It's more formal because of its tailored shape. It looks just as good layered over cocktail gowns as it does over jeans and t-shirt combos. And you don't have to stick to black either. Have fun with patterns and colors because if you have to cover up, it might as well be with something fresh that gives your look that sophisticated, unfrumpy twist. Lavish Alice Terracotta Collarless Cape Blazer, $65.97; BCBGMaxAzria Upas

      E! Online q
    • Kim Kardashian Concierge Reveals New Robbery Details: ‘They Weren’t There for Jewels’

      ET sits down exclusively with the concierge during Kim Kardashian's robbery, who recalls the terrifying events of Oct. 3.

      Entertainment Tonight
    • So, one of your favorite alcoholic beverages is basically like taking cocaine, science says

      The next time you’re in the mood to enjoy an alcoholic beverage, you might want to think twice about ordering a Red…

      Hello Giggles
    • Tomb of Christ opened for the first time in centuries

      Researchers have uncovered the original surface of what is traditionally considered the tomb of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The tomb's surface had been covered by a thick layer of marble, according to an exclusive by National Geographic. "The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it," said Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society working at the site.

      International Business Times UK q
    • Angry grizzly bear charges couple twice; what they did possibly saved their lives

      John and Lisa Vandenbos were scouting for fishing spots along the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park on Saturday when they spotted an adult grizzly bear feeding on a partially consumed carcass. The grizzly bear was obviously surprised and was in no mood to share in its bounty, so it immediately charged the couple, coming to within 9 feet, according to Yellowstone National Park spokeswoman Morgan Warthin. Fortunately, the couple from Bozeman, Montana, were prepared and both quickly discharged their bear spray. “The bear initially left,” Warthin wrote. “When attempting to charge the couple again, it ran into the original cloud of bear spray. Upon making contact with the cloud, the bear retreated q
    • How to Tell Your Salaried Employees They Are Now Hourly

      Some of your salaried employees are about to become hourly employees, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. Starting on December 1, 2016, the minimum salary needed to qualify for a salary exemption will jump from $455 a week ($23,660 per year) to $913 per week ($47,476 per year). If you have employees who are currently exempt from overtime who earn less than $47,476 per year, you'll have to change the way they are paid. How should you tell your employees? Some of them won't take it very well. You should have managers sit down, one on one, to deliver the news. But, you'll also want to follow up with written communication. Here is a sample letter to get started. You will need to modify it

      Inc Magazine q
    • Tim Tebow answered Stephen A. Smith's dumb question with a riveting inspirational speech

      Hate on Tim Tebow all you want, but there’s no denying he’s one of the most motivational guys in sports — period. On Tuesday he appeared with Stephen A. Smith on First Take and dropped the best speech you’ll hear all week. When he was criticized for taking a long shot at making an MLB roster, Tebow dropped the hammer.

      SB Nation q
    • VIDEO: Man pistol whips scary clown prankster in California

      A video showing a man dressed as a clown scaring random people in Northern California has gone viral after one man pistol whipped the prankster.

      KABC – Los Angeles
    • Woman writes bad Yelp review because of a bodega cat, and the internet destroys her

      Don't mess with the bodega cats. Walk into any corner store a.k.a bodega in New York City, and you'll find a variety of household goods, beer, probably a deli and almost definitely a resident cat. The cats keep the rats and mice away and in return, they get to hang out inside and take naps on the chip shelf. @georgeferrer A photo posted by Bodega Cats (@bodegacatsofinstagram) on Oct 11, 2016 at 4:54am PDT Usually New Yorkers tend to ignore that bodega cats may be a health code violation, because most people would prefer to see cats hanging around than rats. But recently, one Yelper decided to break the golden bodega cat rule, and gave S.K. Deli Market in the East Village a 1 star review after noticing her bodega had a cat chilling on a stack of Budweisers. Big mistake. Reviewer Diana D, who has since deleted her post, claimed she had ordered from the bodega before, but decided to pick up her food instead of getting it delivered. That's when she noticed the adorable cat protecting its store. You gotta be a miserable gentrifying ass bitch to yelp about the bodega cat — سنكامي (@SynKami) October 24, 2016 "Besides being allergic, I wonder what the health code say(s) about this?" Diana asked in her review.  Twitter user SynKami took a screen grab of the review and shared it to his followers, harshly calling out Diana  for complaining about the bodega cat. Twitter promptly erupted, and the tweet has racked up more than 7,800 retweets at the time of writing. @SynKami @asherahresearch does she realize the cat is there to keep the rats away. Dumbazz — jaja (@JaJasTweets) October 24, 2016 @SynKami tbh, I don't trust a bodega that doesn't have a cat — Carlos LaBestia (@Arturo_Ulises) October 25, 2016 S.K. Deli Market's Yelp page was flooded with positive reviews on Wednesday, supporting both the deli and cat, who's name is Ciao Bella, according to one Yelper.   According to a piece published in the New York Times about the controversy over bodega cats, fines could cost the bodega $300 to $2,000. However, a fine for rodent feces found in a store can also land a bodega with a $300 fine. "It’s hard for bodega owners because they’re not supposed to have a cat, but they’re also not supposed to have rats,” José Fernández, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States, told the New York Times.

    • The Weirdest Marriage Advice Your Great, Great Grandmother Ever Received (10 photos)

      There's one thing absent-minded husband and wives really weren't supposed to do. From Country Living

      Country Living
    • Miley Cyrus confirms engagement, admits ring is not her 'aesthetic'

      Miley Cyrus cleared up the rumors about her engagement ring on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Thursday when she returned to the show after recently hosting it in Ellen's absence. When the host asked "The Voice" coach about her bling, Cyrus said, "It's very weird because this is, like, real jewelry and most of my jewelry is made out of like gummy bears and cotton candy and they don't look that good together because they kind of mix up. So sometimes I replace it with an actual unicorn or a Looney Tune. And he's like, 'What's going on?' And I'm like, 'Well, this isn't my aesthetic, but I'll wear it 'cause you love me.'" Cyrus has kept her personal life private since rekindling the flame with former

      Fox News q
    • Michael Massee, Actor Who Accidentally Killed Brandon Lee During Filming of 'The Crow,' Dies at 61

      Michael Massee, the actor who unfortunately will forever be known as the man who accidentally shot and killed Brandon Lee on the set of the 1994 film The Crow, has died. Massee’s death was first announced by actor Anthony Delon and confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter by a representative of his agent at Greene & Associates in Los Angeles. In just his second movie appearance, Massee was playing a character known as Funboy when he fired a revolver that had been improperly prepared by crew members at Brandon Lee, the son of famed martial arts star Bruce Lee.

      The Hollywood Reporter
    • Democrats ask judge to sanction Republicans over Trump

      The Democratic National Committee on Wednesday asked a U.S. judge to hold the Republican National Committee in contempt of court over allegations that Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to intimidate minority voters. The DNC accused Republicans in a court filing of violating a longstanding consent decree, which restricts Republicans' ability to question voters at the polls and prevent those people from casting a ballot. During the presidential campaign, Republican nominee Trump has asked followers to "watch" for fraud in the Nov.8 presidential election in certain areas where minority voters reside, even though no evidence of fraud exists, the filing said.

    • Kristin Cavallari dressing as black cat on day of Jay Cutler's return

      Jay Cutler doesn't need any more bad luck this season.

      Sporting News
    • Tom Cruise ‘Serious’ With Girlfriend of Several Months

      Four years after his divorce from Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise has found love again — Us has all the details

      Us Weekly
    • Fantasy football start/sit advice, Week 8: Chris Ivory a tricky call vs. Titans

      Can Chris Ivory revive the Jaguars’ enigmatic ground game? Are the winds shifting toward Chris Ivory in Jacksonville? As this season has worn on, the Jaguars have slowly been working Ivory into the offense to the point that he now looks like the top back in this offense.

      SB Nation
    • Singer Pulled From National Anthem at 76ers Game Over 'We Matter' Jersey

      Singer Sevyn Streeter posted a video about the incident on Twitter.

      ABC News q
    • Clinton ally on emails: 'They wanted to get away with it'

      The email from Neera Tanden, who currently helps run Clinton's transition team, is dated March 2, 2015, the day The New York Times revealed that Clinton had used a homebrew email server while serving as secretary of state rather than her secured government account. While the FBI concluded earlier this year that federal charges against Clinton were not justified in the case, the issue has dogged her campaign to become America's first woman president. Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, was trading messages with John Podesta, who was at the time preparing to chair Clinton's campaign.

    • U.S. charges 61 over India-based impersonation scam

      The U.S. Justice Department charged 61 people and entities on Thursday with taking part in a scam involving India-based call centers where agents impersonated Internal Revenue Service, immigration and other federal officials and demanded payments for nonexistent debts. Twenty people were arrested in the United States on Thursday, while 32 individuals and five call centers in India have been charged, the department said in a statement. The defendants, including 24 people across nine U.S. states, were indicted by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.