READ THE SIGNS
When stores seem to have continuous sales, it's hard to know if an advertised deal is really a deal. An item could have been offered at a markup only to be put "on sale" later, for instance. Or a discounted item may go on clearance for an even lower price next week.
Savvy shoppers can tell if sale items at some major retailers really are a bargain, so long as they know what to look for on a price tag. Perhaps no surprise, some retailers guard these price code secrets closely. When Cheapism reached out to corporate press contacts for comment, some confirmed our information, but several said it was against their policy to talk about pricing strategies. Lucky for shoppers, in most cases, calling local stores eventually yielded a loose-lipped associate. And some information was confirmed by store employees hiding behind ambiguous usernames online.
In the end, Cheapism uncovered price code secrets at 16 chains.
The clothing retailer has standard prices that end with 95 cents (e.g., $39.95). When an item goes on sale, the overall price drops and ends in 99 cents. Clearance items also have prices ending in 99 cents, although they often appear on a clearly marked rack. Shoppers may see white stickers on clearance price tags, but a store associate said those are being phased out.
A red bar with "on sale" printed across the top of a price tag helps shoppers spot sales, but clearance items could be harder to notice. Although some products have "clearance" stickers, a store employee said not to count on it. Clearance prices end in either 97 cents or 99 cents. To be sure, ask an employee to scan the item and see what the computer says.
An asterisk at the top right corner of a price tag is a signifier that appears to be unique to Costco. It identifies an item that will not be restocked until next season (holiday-themed wrapping paper, for instance) or has been discontinued altogether. Prices ending in 97 cents or rounded to the dollar may indicate a special sale or clearance price.
DICK'S SPORTING GOODS
Shoppers may find up to four different price codes at Dick's Sporting Goods. General sale prices end in 99 cents, and prices reduced at the manufacturer's request end in 98 cents. Clearance prices are indicated with a red sticker on the price tag and a price ending in either 97 or 93 cents.
Gap stores distinguish clearly between sale and clearance prices. Sale prices end in 9 cents, while clearance prices end in 7 cents. Sale price tags are also white while clearance tags are orange -- a recent change (those colors have been switched before).
Banana Republic, which shares a parent company with Gap and Old Navy, also ends sale prices with 9 cents and clearance prices with 7 cents. But this store does not use white or orange stickers to distinguish the two; clearance items are placed in a separate section.
Old Navy isn't shy about markdowns -- sales are often marked with large signs near a display. The question is whether the percentage off will get any bigger. As at Gap, final prices end in 7 cents and an orange tag indicates a clearance.
Sales and clearances are trumpeted with large, yellow price tags and clearance sections appear at the ends of the aisles. In online forums, employees including a department head have revealed an insider's way to find the best sales, although the exact timing or system could be different from store to store: Three weeks after an item goes on clearance, the price drops about 25 percent, and at six weeks it drops to about half off. During this time, the price ends in .00 or .04. At seven weeks, the price drops a bit more and ends in .06. After 10 weeks, the price reaches about 75 percent off and ends in .03 or .02. About 3 weeks later, the price will ring up as a penny -- but most stores don't let customers buy these items, which are supposed to be removed from shelves. Some shoppers have had success with accommodating cashiers or try to skirt the system by using self-checkout.
JC Penney marks sale items with a price ending in 99 cents or a flat price, such as $10 or $25. Clearance items have a pink sticker and the prices often end in 96 or 97 cents.
Land's End was one store that readily confirmed its codes: Prices ending in 97 or 99 cents indicate a reduced price. In some cases, a sale price may be rounded to the dollar. There is no clear indication when something is on clearance, though.
An Office Depot employee explained price changes at the office supply store. Sales are often given as a percentage off the original price, and clearly shown. Clearance items may drop slowly in price as time goes on. Often the price ends in 9 cents, then 7 cents, then 4 cents. Although it's uncommon, the employee said he has seen clearance items jump back to the original price after a long time.
There are several different price codes for sale and clearance items at PetSmart. A price ending in 49 or 99 cents indicates a sale, while a price ending in .07, .47, or .97 indicates a clearance. Clearance items should also have a white and red sticker.
Items on sale at REI have prices ending in 9 cents, while clearance items have prices ending in 83 or 93 cents. REI members should know that sale and clearance items do not count toward their annual dividend.
There are three price codes to look for at Sears. When a price ends in 97 cents, often the item has been marked down by the store or is back on the shelves after being returned by another customer. A tag ending in 93 cents may indicate a returned item, a previous floor model, or a rock-bottom clearance price. A price ending in 88 cents means a product is discontinued, but the price may drop further and wind up ending in 93 cents.
Target doesn't seem to use price codes the same way other retailers do, and markdowns are not necessarily the same from one store to another. Clearance items are easy to spot, because they are marked by a large white and red clearance sticker showing the original and sale prices and the percent discount. Often the clearance price ends in 4 or 8 cents. Price drops may start at 15 percent or 30 percent off and fall again if the product remains unsold.
Sale items have yellow price tags and often end in 9 cents. There are also deals with an even dollar amount, though, such as "two for $5." Clearance items are marked with an orange sticker and discounted on a percentage basis, such as 50 percent or 75 percent off the original price. The resulting final price does not indicate the size of the discount.