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Research and anecdotal evidence both show that people respond to the urgency implied by the word “sale.” Consumers make purchases they might have put off for later and choose the sale brand over another. It also seems fair to assume that consumers believe a sale means a limited-time offer that requires quick action on their part.

The word may not be a good reason for action though. No federal regulations dictate what constitutes a sale. As Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and founder of the Web site consumerworld.org, notes, “consumers love a bargain, but if the savings are illusory, there’s no real savings.”

Massachusetts and Alaska are the only two states that stipulate how long retailers must sell the merchandise at a regular price before they can advertise a sale. Other states likely lack such laws because of the difficulty of regulating and enforcing them. States’ Attorneys General rarely have enough resources to monitor thousands of individual items on sale, which means they must rely on consumer complaints. Even if a retailer violates existing law, as did a Kohl’s store in Massachusetts in 2002, the retailer might not be prosecuted because, according to the then-Attorney General, “the benefit to consumers would be minimal.”

Massachusetts’s pricing laws have been rewritten to extend the amount of time an item can be advertised as on sale. That is, retailers can offer merchandise at sale prices for 69 percent of the year, up from 45 percent. In essence, an item can be on sale for longer than it is offered at regular prices. It might be more honest to call the sale price the regular price and denote the “regular” price as an “anti-sale” price. But that honesty seems unlikely to increase customer traffic, which is the primary goal of an advertised sale.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you change your shopping habits when you see something advertised as being on sale?

2. Should there be federal regulations on what constitutes a “sale” price?

Megan Woolhouse, “When Is a Sale the Real Deal?” Boston Globe, January 19, 2010.