Adrian Weckler: ‘Beware of Black Friday ‘sales’

In five days, ‘Black Friday’ will occur. You’ll see and hear lots of ads appearing about this. Sadly, it’s a time of the year when retailers spoof a lot about price cuts with no consequence from any regulatory body.

Discounts are exaggerated and recommended retail prices – ‘RRP’ – are quoted that have not been true for months.

Every year I cover this. Every year, I find examples from almost all the big retailers of creative sales claims.

It happens with TVs, laptops, headphones, cameras and all sorts of other tech goods.

And bodies such as the Competition, Consumer and Protection Commission (CCPC) say that they are either toothless or can’t find cases that are bad enough to act on.

Typically, a retailer announces that a TV ‘now costs’ €699, a ‘saving’ of €300 on its ‘RRP’ of €999.

But this is what really happens. It is first listed at €999 in February. Then it is reduced to €899 in May, then to €849 in August and to €749 in October. (This is very normal in the pricing life of a TV.)

Now, as it comes to the end of its shelf life in November, it is advertised at €699.

So your ‘discount’ – if you can even call it that – is €50 on its last regular price of €749.

It’s not even that hard to check, either. In some cases, a quick search using Google’s cached results (which often gives a snapshot of the page two weeks back or so) shows the most recent price before the sale price was posted.

So when the retailer puts a huge sticker on the web page proclaiming that it’s an amazing new discount of €300 off the ‘RRP’ of €999, it’s completely misleading.

Retailers I’ve put this to say that they’re entitled to use, as marketing material, the length to which a product’s price has come down from its original level.

But they appear utterly unperturbed by any worry of being disciplined over it. And why would they be?

“The CCPC has engaged with traders in relation to promotion pricing but we have not taken any enforcement action on this specific issue,” a spokesman for the regulatory body told me.

The spokesman said that the organisation has taken “numerous enforcement actions against traders for various breaches of pricing legislation, which are detailed in our annual Consumer Protection List”.

But a search through five years’ worth of editions of this list shows no complaint or enforcement action relating to misleading sale price notices of the type we see around Black Friday. Part of the problem is rooted in Irish law.

“When running price promotions or ‘special offers’, it’s against the law for businesses to give a false or misleading previous price,” says the CCPC, referring to the Consumer Protection Act of 2007.

“For example, if the business crosses out one price and replaces it with another, lower, price, the goods in question must have been on sale in the same place, or a significant number of outlets, in the case of a chain, at that previous price for a reasonable time.”

The big problem here is what is meant by “a reasonable time”.

Common sense would suggest that if a product is being advertised as being ‘on sale’ at a discount from a previous price, then that previous price should have been in place directly before the sale started, and for at least a month.

But the law doesn’t actually define it, leaving a giant loophole.

“Generally we are not in a position to provide a definitive view on whether a particular commercial practice breaches any legislation,” said the CCPC spokesman.

“Factors such as the context and the significance of the information provided are important factors which need to be considered. However, in relation to your query, the law isn’t specific in relation to the reasonable time.”

One retailer, to be fair, makes some effort to be transparent. On its website, PC World-Currys lists a date range when its ‘reduced from’ price was in place.

(For example, it has a Samsung 55-inch telly for sale at €579. The previous price of €899, it says, was in place “from 19/10/2018 to 08/11/2018”.)

But most retailers don’t bother. Right now, Harvey Norman is advertising a Sony 55-inch 4K HDR television for €949, with a claimed ‘Black Friday’ reduction of €700 from its stated regular price of €1,649.

But 10 days ago, it was being sold by Harvey Norman for €1,299.

That’s still a decent reduction of €350. But it’s half the discount claimed.

Television prices, in particular, decrease at a steady and predictable rate, not once a year. This reduction may be in the normal course of business, Black Friday or no Black Friday.

It appears that the CCPC may be reliant on the public to report errant behaviour, as the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) is.

And at this stage, it’s likely that many people are simply cynical about the whole thing, expecting that shops will always bend the truth a little.

Does that mean it’s okay?

As for the retailers who are engaging in creative advertising, they may argue that they’re simply trying to stay alive in a critically tough environment.

It’s true that they are under unprecedented assault. Just look at the hollowed-out main streets of Irish towns and cities. What used to be a lively, thriving retail landscape is now populated with bookies, thrift shops and chippers.

It’s no coincidence that city streets in Dublin are now increasingly populated with cafes, boutiques, hairdressers and other ‘service’ spaces.

That’s what people see cities for, now, not buying things they can get slightly cheaper – and with less restriction on stock – online.

So retailers might say: ‘cut us a break, here. We’re trying to survive.’

That’s understandable, but a hard argument to make.

An advertised discount should be transparent and contextual. Too many touted deals around ‘Black Friday’ are elastic.

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