When stores seem to have continuous sales, it's hard to know when and if you're actually getting a good deal. Was the item marked up the day before only to be put "on sale" at almost the same pre-markup price? Many consumers know about price adjustment policies, but these aren't always honored with sale items that can't be returned.
At some major retailers you can tell when the sale item really is a bargain if you know what to look for. The key is found in the ending digits on the price tag. Sometimes referred to as secret price codes, the last one or two digits indicate whether an item is on sale or in clearance. The sale price may be nothing more than a 1-cent reduction, but the clearance codes are particularly worth tracking. Clearance items often haven't been selling well or are no longer in season and must be sold off to make room for more appealing and up-to-the-moment merchandise.
Two Reddit threads unspooled in the past year share tips regarding pricing codes at Costco and Target. Employees of these mega-chains and of several others shared their knowledge about how retailers communicate via price tags. For example, some retailers change an item's price to end in 88, 98, or 99 (e.g., $23.99) if the item is on sale, and 97 if the item is on clearance.
Cheapism has combined details found in the Reddit threads with reports by Rather-Be-Shopping, LifeHacker, The Krazy Coupon Lady, The Consumerist, and Len Rapoport along with comments from helpful consumers and employees to create the following guide to 16 chain stores' price codes.
|Retailer||Discounted||Clearance||Comments and Other Markings|
|American Eagle||.99 or .00||A separate price sticker attached; last digits don't matter.||Watch out because prices ending in .95 are actually full price.|
|Costco||.97, .88, or .00||An * on the top right indicates the item won't be restocked until next season or is discontinued.||.88 and .00 are manager's specials while .97 is a corporate markdown.|
|Dick's Sporting Goods||0.98||.97 or .93|
|Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy||0.98||.47, .49, .97 or .99||All three stores are owned by the same company but there are mixed reports on the pricing for clearance items. Some say .99 indicates clearance, others claim that's the full cost.|
|Home Depot||Green tag||Yellow tag, .x6, .x3, or .01||Green tags indicate a markdown as a result of an open box, missing parts, damage, etc. Some items being sent back to the vendor, or to the trash, are tagged .01 and can be bought at the manager's discretion.|
|Kohl's||GV or S in upper right corner||0.97||NM in the upper right corner indicates the item will be marked down soon. GV stands for great value, a sale that only lasts a few days, and S stands for sale.|
|Lands' End||.97 or .99|
|Office Depot||.x1 to .x4||There are four clearance price codes starting at .x1. Once an item gets to .x4, it won't get any cheaper.|
|PetSmart||.x7||Reduced-price items may also have a "reduced to clear" sticker.|
|REI||.x9||.83 or .93||Items ending in .x9 and .x3 don't count toward the yearly members' refund.|
|Sears||0.93||.88 or .97||Items ending in .93 are slightly damaged or missing parts. (Check to see what's wrong before buying.) .97 indicates clearance but the price can drop; .88 indicates final markdown.|
|Target||Some report anything other than .x9 is a sale price.||.x4 or .x8||Target has clearance stickers that indicate a percentage off in the top right corner. Clearance discounts range from 15 percent to 90 percent.|
Note that these so-called rules aren't set in stone, and some indicators may not be valid at every location all the time. Take Target, for example. Many reports from shoppers and employees say that a tag ending in a 4 (e.g., $16.84) indicates a final clearance price, but Snopes.com disputes this claim. As it happens, Target does supply a straightforward signal: the clearance amount, which ranges from 15 percent off (an okay deal) to 90 percent off (a rare but excellent deal), appears on the top right of the price tag. Costco also uses the top right of its tags but adds an asterisk if the item won't be restocked. If an asterisk appears along with a price ending in 97, a code that indicates a limited-time deal, you can be sure it's a good buy that likely won't reappear in the future.
Once you understand the price codes you can make better decisions about when to make a purchase. Sales, of course, come to an end and the items either return to full price or drop to clearance, but clearance prices will likely continue to fall. Office Depot, for example, indicates an item has gone into clearance with a price ending in a 1. As time goes by, the store will mark it down again and change the price to end in a 2, then a 3, then a 4, where it stays until the item is sold out or taken off the shelf. Knowing this you may decide to wait on an item with a price ending in 1 but consider it when the tag ends in 3, as it may sell out before hitting rock bottom.
The most dramatic case of items dropping in price over time occurs at Home Depot. Here clearance sales are indicated with a yellow tag and a price ending in a 6 or a 3. When you see something priced at $0.01, that's an unambiguous sign it will be pulled from the floor and returned to a supplier or simply trashed. These items often are not actually for sale and require a manager's approval at checkout, but some consumer posts at Fat Wallet report success. One employee asserts that if Home Depot is switching vendors and the items will be thrown out, it's easier to sell them for a penny than to manually remove each one from the computer system.
If you're confused by the pricing, or what a number or symbol may indicate, don't hesitate to ask an employee. They won't always be willing or able to help, but merchandise usually is marked down because the stores want to move it out. And if an employee explains the tag- price strategy, the sell-off might move along at a rapid clip.