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.


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.

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.

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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.