In California and other states, several major retailers have settled strikethrough pricing lawsuits after being accused of violating false advertising laws. The lawsuits were filed in response to a common retail sales strategy: enticing customers to make purchases by highlighting comparison prices, which can include previous list prices that have since been reduced by the retailer or higher prices on similar items currently sold by competitors. This is especially prevalent among major retailers that advertise and sell products online. But comparison pricing is not without risks for the companies. That’s because there are both state and federal regulations of deceptive sale pricing. When a retailer violates these laws, it can lead to retail discount pricing litigation. Moreover, these lawsuits are often filed as class actions that involve many different consumers who were deceived into purchasing items because of deceptive pricing information.
To find out more about some of the major retailers that have been sued for strikethrough pricing violations, keep reading this blog.
Strikethrough Pricing in Retail Ads Can Violate California & Federal Consumer Protection Laws
Since price is often the deciding factor for consumers when the time comes to make a purchase, many retail companies use something known as compare-at pricing or strikethrough pricing. This is a sales and marketing strategy that emphasizes a product’s lower ticket price by comparing it to a higher list price or Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). Unfortunately, some retailers go too far with strikethrough pricing by offering deceptive discounts that mislead customers. Basically, the company mentions an inflated original price in an ad so that the “for sale” price appears greater by comparison.
What happens when a business misrepresents a sales price? For example, a company might offer a product at a perpetual sale price, meaning that it’s just a regular price that the company is lying about and passing off as a discounted price. Or a retail store might carelessly compare their price to another store’s price without acknowledging that the item offered at the other store is substantially different. It’s also possible that a business will use false reference pricing to compare their current price to a much higher price from many months or even years earlier. These kinds of fraudulent marketing and advertising practices may be unlawful violations of both California state and federal laws governing false advertising, consumer fraud, and unfair competition.
Under California’s comparison pricing law, retail companies that use reference prices when advertising or marketing their merchandise must follow strict guidelines. Most importantly, the original full price mentioned in the ad must be legitimate. If the item was never offered for sale at the higher price, or if it was only offered at that price for a short period of time, consumers may be able to file a lawsuit against the company for false advertising.
When a company cites a comparison price in an advertisement, they must be prepared to show that it was the prevailing market price within the three-month window preceding the publication of the ad. Absent that, the company must “clearly and conspicuously” indicate the date when the former price was in effect. Companies that fail to do either of these things may face consumer litigation in the form of a false advertising claim filed in California court.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a mission of enforcing federal consumer protection laws. To this end, the FTC has issued guidelines that strictly regulate former pricing. These promotional pricing guidelines stipulate that companies citing a former price in their ads or promotional materials must use an “actual, bona fide price” that was offered to the general public “on a regular basis for a reasonably substantial period of time.”
Major Retailers Named as Defendants in Comparison Pricing Lawsuits
Comparison pricing is a sales strategy used by retailers in a lot of different consumer categories:
- Clothing & Department Stores: Dillard’s, JCPenney, Kmart, Kohls, Macy’s, Marshalls, Nordstrom, Ross Stores, Sears, Target, TJ Maxx
- Auto Parts: Advance Auto Parts, AutoZone, Carquest, NAPA Auto Parts, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Pep Boys
- Tools & Home Improvement: Ace Hardware, Harbor Freight Tools, The Home Depot, Lowe’s, True Value Hardware
- Sporting Goods: Bass Pro Shops, Champs Sports, Dick’s Sporting Equipment, REI
- Home & Kitchen Supplies: Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, The Home Depot
- Alcohol & Wine: BevMo, Total Wine & More
Calvin Klein, The Children’s Place, Dressbarn, Eddie Bauer, JCPenney, Pier 1 Imports, Shutterfly, and Zales are just some of the major retailers that have been named as defendants in nationwide class action lawsuits alleging false reference pricing. Other major retailers have been ordered to pay large judgments in California comparison pricing cases. For instance, a court ordered Overstock.com to pay almost $7 million when state regulators filed suit against the internet retailer.
Amazon Settles California Deceptive Pricing Lawsuit for $2 Million
California district attorneys also filed a complaint against Amazon for using unlawful comparison prices when advertising products. The case was brought by district attorney’s offices in six California counties: Alameda, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Yolo.
The complaint, which was filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleged that the reference prices mentioned by Amazon in their ads did not match the prevailing market prices for the items being sold. The Amazon ads distinguished former prices from current prices by stating “Was” or “List” next to the higher price. Many of the online ads also had strikethrough lines across the former price, making it clear to consumers that the newer “sale” prices were lower. But California prosecutors said that these comparison prices were misleading because there was no evidence to suggest that they were real prices.
Shortly after the legal complaint was filed, Amazon agreed to settle the deceptive advertising case for approximately $2 million. This included civil penalties and restitution to the consumers who purchased products because of the misleading price listings. The court also ordered Amazon to make significant changes to its pricing disclosures in online ads. (E.g., including hyperlinks on the website that clearly define key terms such as “Was” and “List” when used with prices.)
Contact the California False Advertising Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP
Tauler Smith LLP is a California law firm that represents consumers in false advertising cases throughout the United States. Call 310-590-3927 or send an email to find out if you might have a legal claim against a retailer for using deceptive comparison prices in product advertisements.