How To Read A Price Tag

After the holiday season ended during my time at Sears NY, the merchandising manager approached me about switching from cashier to in-store signage associate. It paid 80 cents more per hour and didn’t involve selling Sears cards. Jackpot.

Store signage includes promotional signs and price tags. I’d come to the store early in the morning and check all the price tags with a scanner and print out updated ones, then do the same thing with the signs. It was tedious and working in silence with no one else in view could get depressing. On the other hand, I knew what was on clearance before anyone else and it gave me the opportunity to shop for myself. It also made me pay attention to the details that customers and even cashiers often miss.

For example, like most things in life, promo signs depend on their fine print. Here’s one from The Store Formerly Known As “JCP. The format is typical in most stores that sell housewares.


At first glance, one might think that all complete sets of Royal Velvet sheets cost $79.99. However, both the price and the words “full set” refer to a full-sized sheet set. King and queen sizes cost more. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many people do not read the entire sign. To Penney’s credit, most of the housewares signage went the opposite route and gave the highest-price item the headline treatment with the lower prices in smaller print.

That doesn’t mean I’m letting the store off the hook for its lack of maintenance. Let’s zoom in on that photo:


That thick blue line is made up of the layers of old signs stuffed behind the current one. No one could have been bothered to remove them before replacing them. Lazy.

Anyway, as a cashier I once had a customer complain about being charged $10 more for her bath towels than the price on the promo sign indicated. The sign said $14.99 for a bath towel in large print, while the sale prices for the bath sheet, hand towel, and washcloth were listed in smaller print. What she was really trying to buy were bath sheets. (How was she supposed to know what she had was a bath sheet and not a bath towel? The sizes were indicated next to the names of the items. Bath sheet = 35″ x 60″. Bath towel = 27″ x 52″.) The customer argued that because the sign was right next to the bath sheets, the physical proximity should cancel out the advertised price. Unfortunately, my manager found her logic unacceptable and she did not get the discount.

Here’s another example from Penney’s:


A penny for travel-sized conditioner! Wheee! Oh, wait. In smaller print, it says you need to buy two in order to get the one-cent item. This discount is also known as “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” (and really, “These Things Must Not Be That Great Because We Need To Get Rid Of Them ASAP”), but there’s a novelty about buying something for one cent that makes it more interesting than getting the same thing for free. Then there’s the teeny print on the right. It says that Mix and Match Essentials products range from $2.99 to $30.00. And in teenier print underneath “Mix and Match Essentials Bar”? Those are the exclusions. All in all, you have to spend at least $12 to get three things you probably didn’t want before you saw “1¢”.

Another thing to know about signage: sometimes signs advertise an additional percentage off the sale price, which is often advertised as a percentage as well. However, 70% off the original price + an additional 30% off ≠ $0. Let’s say a $100 sheet set is on sale for 70% off. So now it’s $30. That means the sheet set is $21. That’s a great deal, but it’s not free merchandise. The additional 30% is on the sale price, not the original price. I’m terrible at math; I thank retail for teaching me this.

Shoppers make stupid mistakes when it comes to signage but they’re understandable ones. There’s a reason why store signage uses fine print and vague phrasing. You’re supposed to be misled. That’s the way of the world. You can, however, use signage to your advantage.

For example, there’s more to a price tag than the price. Here’s the sticker from the $2.99 bra I mentioned in the previous post:


Take a look at the bottom right corner. The tag was made in February; it was June when I saw it. If you see a clearance sticker with a date-stamp that’s more than three months old, more likely than not, the real price is even lower. However, the item may have expired during those months, meaning it’s no longer saleable, so always check at a price scanner or ask a cashier. It’s rare for non-seasonal merchandise to be sold at over 75% off the original price, but a 93% loss didn’t stop Sears NY, so anything’s possible.

When you see a promo sign, check for an expiration date at the bottom. If you want to buy an item at the price indicated on the sign but the sign has expired, take it with you to the register. Before presenting the sign to the cashier, ask for a price check on the item. If it’s more than the price on the sign, show it to him or her. You will get the price on the sign because otherwise, it’s false advertising. If the correct price is lower than what’s on the sign, give to the cashier anyway and mention that it’s expired. Either way, you get the best price and the store gets rid of an incorrect sign.

Ideally, there shouldn’t be any expired signs or outdated price tags in a store. Even when I was putting stickers on packages of men’s bikinis in semi-darkness at 1:00 AM and wondering where my life was going, I took pride in my work. I wish more signage associates did the same. On the other hand, I do enjoy being the customer who benefits from human error. It’s another example of where online shopping can’t fully replace brick-and-mortar.




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