By Paul Michael on 3 December 2007 28 comments

That quote from Howard Beale (character in Network, 1976 movie) sums me up right about now. And it's probably just the straw that broke the camel's back, because it's not really a big deal on it's own. But over the past few months, several of the grocery stores I visit have started seriously inflating the prices of various foods before putting them on sale. And I'm sick of it.

Most recently the culprit was my local Safeway. I like a can of soda now and then and I usually stock up when I see a deal, like 30% off or BOGO. Well, I popped into Safeway and was greeted with a huge display of 12-pack sodas from both Coke and Pepsi, with the massive sign above them reading "Buy 2, get 1 free." I know a deal when I see one, so I loaded 3 of the 12-packs into my cart and went to check out.

The check out guy rang them up and then I saw the total...it was a few pennies shy of $12. "Hang on," I said in my most stern British accent (sometimes it helps) "these sodas are buy 2, get 1 free. That should be about $8."

"Nope, the before sale price for each 12-pack is $5.69" he said with an "I couldn't care less" smile. "Oh, really?" I said and paid the bill. Then, when I got home, I looked at my receipt from the last time I went shopping at Safeway some 5 days earlier. The price for a 12-pack was $3.99. So, in less than a week they had shot up by around $1.70. That didn't see right, but maybe there was a huge soda shortage or something. I called Alberstons and King Soopers, their 12 packs were still $3.99. I felt annoyed. Really annoyed. Livid, in fact.

Safeway was basically doing something that I personally believe to be completely underhanded. They are massively inflating the before sale price in the hopes of making you think you're getting a stellar deal. "Wow, I just saved a bunch of cash" you're thinking. But in actuality you've saved almost nothing and bought more product than you would have done if the sale wasn't there.

A day later, I looked around several grocery stores at the BOGO deals and sale goods. It was happening everywhere. Cans of tuna where up in price but on sale. The same went for detergent, bread, even contact lens solution. And it just made me boil over. Most consumers don't really pay attention to the prices, they just look for the deals. In this case, the deals (including those nasty 10 for $10 bulk-buy rip-offs) are not deals at all. The stores have simply done a little dollar-cost averaging and played with the numbers so that deals equate to the same price before the sale.

Well, I don't know about you but I'm sick of it. And I'm sure many of you are, too. So I propose we all do something about it, starting with me. I have a camera-phone and I'll be carrying it with me everywhere. When I see a deal, I'll take snapshot. If the "before price" looks suspicious, I'll compare it to the price of the product when it comes off sale. And over the next few months, I'll keep a detailed log. I'm out to prove once and for all that we're being manipulated like pawns in chess by the billion-dollar grocery chains.

Now, who's with me? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

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Guest's picture

I agree, that's really sneaky. They do it here in Spain all the time too. I really do think these practices should be illegal because it's like false advertising.

The other day I was buying dish washing soap and they had two offers on the same brand for 30% free. Then, there was a 3rd bottle, the same size and price as the 30% free ones that said "special price". What the heck?

Guest's picture

Great Post!

You also have to beware of companies that put up a "Special Price" sticker, or "Great Buy", even when the price hasn't changed, or it's gone up. I look behind the sale price stickers for the regular price sticker.

Paul Michael's picture

Also, watch out for another way you can be deceived...size or weight of a product can go down but the price will remain the same. You're getting less of something for the same price. 

Guest's picture
Guest Shari

You're right about that - I just started checking weights on pkgs and Tostitos Light Chips went from around 10 oz. down to 6. What a rip at $3.49 a bag. Corporation GREED.

Guest's picture

My local store likes to bunch very similar items together and only put a couple of the unpopular ones on sale in hopes that you will grab the item that isn't on sale thinking that it is on sale.

rstlne's picture

I would catch that because I remember prices of items that I use most frequently. I also do that in order to not pay more when shopping at a different supermarket.

Guest's picture

Could it be illegal in your state to raise the price and then put it on sale? If it isn't it should be.

Also, I would complain, using your receipt from before the sale, to the store manager and to the corporate headquarters. Tell them why you won't shop their sales or why you won't shop that store anymore. One voice may or may not make a difference but I bet many voices would.

How about contacting your local newspaper or TV station for Consumer Problems - maybe they would like to investigate. Businesses do not like negative publicity.

Guest's picture

Hey, and what about the new-style 3-for, 4-for, or 5-for (eg."5 for $16.37") price tags the stores are putting up all over the place? Many items do not even have a price tag for how much one item costs. I believe they are trying to trick the consumer with the "bulk buy" mentality or hide the fact that the item has increased in price. In reality, many of these are not deals at all - they represent a price increase.

That's one reason most of our grocery money is spent at ALDI.

Paul Michael's picture

As I hinted at earlier, something like 10 for $10 does not usually mean you buy 10 to get the deal. In fact, I believe Safeway has now had to label (albeit in small print) the individual price on each product. If in doubt, ask for a price check. Grocery store psychology is a serious business. 

Guest's picture

While I'm not doubting the validity of Paul's reasons for being angry with this store and the general practice of price gouging, not all stores, and not all products go through this cycle.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post about how I watch soup prices at my local store because it's just so much easier to buy when they're on sale versus making my own at home and having no way to store leftovers. Because i watch them when they're not on sale, I know I'm getting a good price.

I dunno. Maybe my local store is just behind the times...

Guest's picture

Hi, I have experienced the same thing a lot of times in my local ASDA. At one time I was especially annoyed as the coffee I used to buy was £1, rolled back from £1.69. The roll back sticker had been removed then for several weeks. Next time I went in for my coffee a rollback sticker was on the shelf Price: £1.69, whereas before it had been £1. So I went to the customer services to complain. They took notes and said I would hear from them. Nothing happened. Next time is ASDA I enquired, they took notes again, nothing happened. Then I decided I go onto the website to log a formal complaint. No response. This in ASDA who praise themselves on their fabulous customer service. Ha ha.
And that was not the only problem which happened in ASDA and their prices. So now I drive to TESCO, a 25 miles longer car journey, but it still saves me weekly £10 minimum, and I try to fit it in with when I am near there anyway....
ASDA? Never ever again!

Guest's picture

You catch these things if you track prices. One of our local grocery chains advertising items as being on sale but they are the same price they always are. I also see the 10 for 10 sales and about half of the items are ones that are a buck or less normally.

The other thing I noticed was that many gift type items went up just before holiday shopping hit full swing.

Guest's picture

4 times this past week my "sale" item was not really on sale when it rang up. The first time the items had a big 40% sign that did not ring up. When I pointed it out to the clerk she checked the flyer & gave me the discount. I asked when the sale ended & she told me the end of the week. Then when I came back on Friday the sign was down & they tried not honor the sale (they finally did). The 3rd time the 20% off rugs marked on the aisle didn't ring up so I stood there till they sent someone back to check. They did honor that sale price also. The final straw was Monday I picked up some dog beds on sale ($19.99 every place you looked) rang up for $29.99. They sent someone back & the one's I had picked out were "on the wrong shelf". I left them at the store. I ran an errand & went back, boy were those shelves straightened out! The ones I wanted were on the very bottom with bright yellow stickers. If I hadn't been running late the first time I would have gone back my self. It is getting old. I think I might start taking pictures with my cell phone before I get to the check out counter. My kids/husband get so embarrassed but I tell them that the store sure would point out to me if my check was $2-3.00 short! This might be one more reason people are buying less & over the web. The only time I've had a clerk help me with purchases lately was to get my sale price!

Guest's picture

This doesn't make me mad at all. Sales are generally just psychology anyway. One of the main points I try to always make is that you shouldn't buy something just because it is on sale. You should buy it because you are in need of it - at a good price. If you need it *and* it's on sale, so much the better. But you shouldn't buy it just because of the sale.

Of course, I can't convince my wife of this, especially when it comes to clothes. "But they were on sale" after a $200 shopping spree for clothes that she doesn't need :(

Guest's picture

Maybe I wasn't clear but my point was that the stores were not honoring their sale prices. I do not buy things because they are on sale, in fact all these items I have been watching for them to go on sale for some time because of the brand (intimate wear in one case) or the unusual nature (very larage dog bed) of my purchases. I was just offering a tale of caution that I think because of the holiday season some stores try to take advantage of you if you don't pay attention at the checkout. They know we are usually pressed for time, shopping after work or on our lunch hour & many are too reluctant to fuss. I can't believe that you don't get mad when people (or companies) lie to you - which is what they do when the advertise a price & then attempt to not honor that sale price.

Guest's picture

I'm sure there are other places that run like this too, but Trader Joe's is the one I know. They don't do coupons, they don't do sales. They just price the items at whatever the price is. Produce prices change seasonally, and occasionally things are adjusted for inflation or such, but they don't play mind games.

They also have a stellar $3 bottle of wine ;).

Guest's picture

Buck Chuck here in California! :D. I like them. No games!

Guest's picture

I've noticed this about Safeway for some time now - they do jack up the prices before putting some items on sale and I agree it's really annoying. I get around this by having a feel for the prices of the items I buy regularly - Diet Coke is a staple at our place I'm afraid to say. I only buy the sale items I know are a good price. Have you noticed that many of sale items are now buy 2 get 1 free - used to be buy 1 get free.

On a similar topic, I recently received a coupon booklet from our local Toyota dealership for discounts on service. I need a minor service and there was a coupon for $69.95 but it didn't show the regular price so I called - guess what the regular price was - you got it - $69.95! So I asked why the coupon - the answer was "I don't really know" - same "I couldn't care less" attitude. Go figure!

Guest's picture

This is exactly why keeping a price book is so valuable. Sometimes sales just aren't that special after all.

Guest's picture

I try to keep out of the stores and only buy loss leaders. Try and find out what is the grade of beef at safeway. I have tried to find out what grade is their ranchers reserve and I only get poliet emails back

Paul Michael's picture

is from, dare I say it, my favorite store...Target. They have these red tags called "as advertised" that are exactly the same color and design as their "clearance" tags. Basically, if you're not careful, you often think that you're getting something on special but that's not the case at all. They're just highlighting a product they want you to buy, at a regular price. Clever.

Guest's picture
Sylvie M.

Stores have been doing this ever since I've been shopping, and that's a lot of years. You just finally discovered it for yourself. It's a technique that teaches a lot of people to become more careful shoppers, but the stores probably still make a bundle from the suckers who don't notice or can't be bothered to comparison shop.

Guest's picture

I think the best way to combat this is to make and consistently use a grocery price book-that way you know the best unit price you can get on an item that you buy with any regularity, so you know a deal when you see one, and when you don't.

I made one a few weeks ago and have already noticed a HUGE drop in my grocery bill. totally worth the hassle.

Guest's picture

You have opened my eyes. I will have to check out the things I bought on sale next week. I am sure that it is happening here in Michigan too. Grrrr... I know that being frugal is not easy, but I am so sick of having to watch every little thing. I can't wait for your comparison.

I once had a friend whose mother actually weighed her products when she got them home and found that FREQUENTLY the ounces did not match the ounces printed on the box or can. She would call the company and let them know and they would say "it must have settle with shipping. As you know, that would only effect the density not the weight. DUH!!!

I have a price book going, but have just realized that I have only put best sale prices in and not regular prices. Thanks for the heads up!!!

Guest's picture
Bart Matthews

I hate going to the grocery store more and more. But what I REALLY hate is our local Kroger store in this little town of Palestine, TX will run an ad with a really good deal on meat (or whatever...but especially meat) and you go in to buy some and they are out! I get SO mad! I have written the company and got a response from the local Asst. Mgr., but to me that is bait and switch too. They bait you in the store with a really good deal on steak or HB meat or whatever and you end up either not buying that item (because they don't have enough to last for the duration of the sale) or end up buying something else that is NOT on sale and spending more money. This seems to happen nearly every week, and it isn't limited to just meat either.

Guest's picture

Hey folks,,,the practice has been around a LOooooooong time..a semi LOL, am 'old' , been shopping a very long time and HAVE been aware of such practices a very, VERY long time and is why you pay attention when shopping and especially at "check-out" , do a mental tally as shopping so more likely to BE more aware when total is above what "expected" ! And an OH YEAH, you know , those SLIGHT/MINIMAL "OVERCHARGES" of even a few pennies, think how when consistently "rung up" adds to the stores coffers...and yes, even when reported/caught by a customer and have the 'excuse" these days that 'the computer did not readjust/update"..LOL, have gone back and checked (deliberately) days later, and even thou promised would be corrected (which is a phone call away to HQ to orrect" with a few keystrokes...) found NOTHING done to correct and same overcharge happening...those PENNIES ADD MILLIONS TO THE COMAPNY PROFIT LINES...Hard to PROVE eliberate, but , well, mmmm'er's !!! Its called "merchandising and many figure FEW will complain about meager/small overcharges so they continue to get away with such...DELIBERATELY !!! (and bet the exec in charge gets a hefty bonus to boot from those profitable penny+ overcharges as helped to add to the company profits/etc...) YOU MUST BECOME a SAvvy/ alert shopper, ITS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to YOURSELF...yeah , it takes effort and deligence, but better the pennies in YOUR pocket than theirs (LOL, did YOU know, that take ONE PENNEY a day, double it each day--the accumulation adds to pover a MILLION DOLLARS in just 30 days...honest, do the math..first day ONE penney, add two pennies the second day, day three is add 3, day four add 6...do the math..its is astounding and THEN think of how many customers get OVERCHARGED those pennies day after day after day.....astounding reality and MOST never BOTHER to complain over a MERE 2-3cents overcharge......think about it !!!)( and yes, do the math on that penney doubled each day for 30days...put it on paper to remind you and post !!!....)

Guest's picture

I guess I am luck for the most part, our 10 for $10 sale is just another way for them advertising $1 each. It is very rare that you need to buy the large quantity. I can't believe the people who get suckered in to the buy one get one for a $1 or a penny. They act like they are getting such a great deal when 2 weeks later the same store will have the same item on sale 50% off. I have actually had people tell me that well I got the same thing for a dollar last 2 weeks ago. That is the 2nd one I inform them. I only need to buy the one I need and I save a dollar to boot. Pricing is such a gimmic. You really need to evaluate how many of an item you will use or need to evaluate the benefits of a bogo sale.

Guest's picture

Here is a copy of a letter that I sent today to Safeway because I am p--d off at their deceptive practices also:

I have a problem with how your pricing placards are placed; hopefully, it is not intentional, but lately after repeatedly find this issue I am skeptical. To be more specific, more times than I care to list, I find that in all of your stores the pricing placards are either several items away from the intended item or they simply have no price on them at all.

Please tell me that this is strictly coincidental in "All" of your stores or you are just using deceptive practices to assure higher sales revenue.

As you know, many people are either stressed out, in a hurry, or just simply are older patrons and are being taken advantage of. Whether this is intentional or shear coincidence, you tell me.

Frankly, I am about fed up with it and if one more employee tries to tell me that I should pay closer attention, I will no longer shop at your stores and put the word out.

If the latter (trying to use deceptive practices) is the case, shame on you because many people are struggling to eat.

Thank you and HOPEFULLY, I will get a satisfactory response.

Dissatisfied Customer