I’ve heard from a few consumers in the past few weeks who mentioned they saw an unbelievably good advertised price for an item in an ad circular or newspaper, but when they went to the store or restaurant to take advantage of it, they were told it was an error and the merchant wouldn’t sell it at that price.
Let’s say you see an ad in the newspaper for a microwave oven for $25 at your local discount store. “At that price, I’ll get two,” you exclaim gleefully, and take the ad with you to the store. You’re a little skeptical, but it was in print, so you decide to take a chance. But when you get there and find the oven on the shelf, the price is $250.
By now, you’re getting upset, so you find the manager and present him with the printed ad. He consults with a couple of employees, who run over to the shelf. They return shortly, and the three have a little conference out of earshot. The manager comes back to you and tells you he won’t sell you the microwave for $25 because the price in the ad was missing a zero. He is willing to knock a few dollars off the price for your trouble, but won’t budge otherwise. A few minutes later, a sign appears on the store’s door acknowledging the error and offering an apology.
This scenario happens quite frequently, especially in businesses that advertise a lot. It’s easy to miss a few errors as ads are composed, and although most publications take great care to review everything, mistakes slip through. But although many people believe the store must honor any price in an ad, store sign or even a shelf tag, it’s a myth. A store is under no legal obligation to honor a mistaken price, so long as there is not a pattern of such behavior and there is no intent to deceive.
One example that got a lot of publicity was in 2013, when Macy’s put out a national ad for a necklace that ordinarily cost $1,500, but had discounted it to $47. The only problem: The actual discounted price was $479; whoever composed the advertisement had mistakenly left off the “9.” Macy’s quickly acted to put up signs in its stores, but it was too late; the necklace had already sold out in the company’s Dallas location. Since Macy’s was unable (or unwilling, given the potential social media backlash) to try to recover the thousands lost due to the mistake, they canceled unfilled online orders instead. A few people managed to make significant profit from the situation.
This is, of course, much different from “bait-and-switch,” in which a business advertises an item at an unusually low price but has no intention of honoring the price and is instead trying to get customers to come in so they can be “upsold” to higher-priced merchandise. Repeated complaints of this type of behavior can catch the attention of law enforcement and make a business end up in court.
In cases of errors, though, most sources I consulted would agree the seller is expected to correct the mistake quickly and preferably in the same medium that carried the mistake in the first place. If a merchant makes an honest mistake, it’s under no obligation to honor the mistaken price. Mississippi’s consumer protection law doesn’t prescribe specifically what to do in the case of such mistakes, although it does mandate that a merchant can’t advertise goods or services “with intent not to sell them as advertised.” It also prohibits advertising with “intent not to supply reasonably expectable public demand, unless the advertisement discloses a limitation of quantity.”
To avoid such problems, merchants should have clear, written policies spelling out what they will do in case of errors. Examine the copy carefully before publication and be sure to include limitations or expiration dates that may apply.
And if you’re the customer, try to reason with the business calmly. Many stores and restaurants empower their clerks and customer-service representatives to grant discounts (up to a point) to make the customer happier. You might not get exactly what you want, but most businesses will try to accommodate you as much as possible within reason. If you have evidence of “bait-and-switch” or other illegal practices, file a complaint with law enforcement.
In an age in which a simple typo can make your company a social-media pariah in minutes, owning up to the error and being generous can help keep a business’ reputation and customer goodwill (which are, in fact, any business’ most valuable assets anyway.)