• Business

5 Secrets Stores Don’t Want You to Know About Their ‘Deals’

4 minute read

Who doesn’t love a bargain? The highlight of a shopping trip can be scooping up something with a slashed-through price or a big “sale” sticker on the shelf.

But stores have gotten increasingly sophisticated about shoring up their profit margins in a climate where people just aren’t spending the way they used to, so those discounts and deals aren’t always what they seem. Here’s how five big chains make you think you’re getting a steal.

JC Penney: Department stores have learned that, to push customers’ buttons, they have to offer whopping discounts. But what some of them do to make the math work is to actually raise prices before a sale, so markdowns are pretty similar to the original, non-sale prices. When JC Penney backed off its failed “no discounts” approach in 2013, CEO Mike Ullman told investors that being competitive “means initially marking up our goods to sufficient levels to protect our margins when the discount or sale is applied.”

To be fair, JC Penney isn’t the only discount store that practices this sleight-of-hand. A CBS affiliate in California investigated Kohl’s with hidden cameras and found that some prices were marked up by as much as $100. “One twin sheet set was listed at 50 percent off the original price of $89.99. But inside the plastic zipper, the earlier price tag shows $49.99, indicating the current sale is only $5 savings from the original tag,” the report says.

Outlet stores: While people have the perception of outlet stores as a great place to snag a deal on a designer coat with a crooked seam or last season’s hot fashions, the truth is that today, outlet stores pretty much operate as their own separate brands. The vast majority of stuff in those stores never so much as touched a rack at the name-brand version of the store. An anonymous outlet buyer tells LearnVest that as much as 90% of outlet merchandise was never made to be sold at a non-outlet store. Not only can this lead to lower quality in outlet-only merchandise, but it also means the so-called full price basically is a made-up number.

T.J. Maxx/Marshall’s: A recent Fortune magazine investigation looked at how parent company TJX Companies’ highly secretive business practices make customers at these sister brands feel like they’re on a “treasure hunt” while raking in the profits. Like outlet stores, these brands profit by having name-brand clothes made especially for them. Those Ralph Lauren sweaters? Odds are they never saw the inside of a Ralph Lauren or department store. (The article mentions Ralph Lauren specifically, but they’re not the only one.) The stores also stock trendy items designed to sell out quickly and often don’t carry very many of the really high-end items shoppers seek out, creating a sense of urgency for customers to snap up something they like before it’s gone.

Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart’s reputation is for the lowest prices anywhere, but customers who don’t shop around could actually find themselves paying more for their everyday purchases. Since discount retailers constantly tweak their prices, a customer who shops on auto-pilot rather than comparison-shopping could find themselves paying more for an item that used to be the better deal. Case in point: A 2012 Bloomberg Industries study found that rival Target edged out the self-proclaimed low-price leader. “Prices at Target were 0.46 percentage point cheaper than Wal-Mart this month. That means for every $100, Target was 46 cents less expensive,” the report says. Of course, this particular study is a few years old, and 46 cents isn’t a lot of money by any stretch, but this example goes to show how a store’s slogan is still no substitute for shopping around.

Target: The blog Consumerist has a whole tag dedicated to pricing discrepancies at the nation’s second-biggest discounter, full of reader-submitted photos of things like “value packs” of multiple items that actually cost more than buying two or more of the items separately would cost. This “deal” on disposable diapers offers a $5 gift card if customers buy two packages, but a sharp-eyed reader noticed that the promotional price per package was actually $2.50 more than the regular price sticker still on the shelf. And while buying bigger quantities usually means a lower unit price, coffee drinkers at this Target would be better off buying two smaller 12-ounce bags instead of an ostensibly more economical 24-ounce bags.

Read next: The Easiest Way to Deal With Annoying Online Shopping Returns

PHOTOS: The 14 Most Iconic Bras of All Time

Mata Hari's bejeweled bra
Mata Hari's Bejeweled Bra The famed exotic dancer and convicted spy was notorious for stripping down but never removing her jeweled metallic bra. It was said that she was self-conscious about her small breast size.Heritage Images/Getty Images
Jane Russell
The Bullet Bra Popularized by actresses such as Jane Russell (pictured here), Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe, these conical bras came into style in the 1940s and 50s and gave rise to the famed 'Sweater Girl'. Popperfoto/Getty Images
The Coconut Bra
The Coconut Bra Although some will argue about its authenticity, the coconut bra remains a symbol of the Hawaiian Islands and a staple of all hula girl costumes.Getty Images
Mrs. Robinson's Black Lace Bra
Mrs. Robinson's Lace Bra Anne Bancroft seduced audiences — and Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock — with her black brassiere in the classic 1967 film The Graduate.Embassy Pictures
Princess Leia's Metal Bra
Princess Leia's Metal Bra Arguably as iconic as the Princess's hair buns, this costume piece was created for actress Carrie Fisher after she reportedly complained that her character's costumes were too roomy. It was made using a cast of her body.Sunset Boulevard/Corbis
Ariel's Seashell Bra
The Seashell Bra Popularized by Disney's 1989 film The Little Mermaid, Ariel's purple seashell bra launched a now familiar feature of Halloween mermaid costumes. Walt Disney Pictures
Madonnna's Cone Bra
Madonna's Cone Bra Created by designer Jean Paul Gaultier for the Material Girl's Blond Ambition tour in 1990, this structured garment a was throwback to the bullet bras and has become one of the star's most memorable looks.Frank Micelotta—Getty Images
The Wonderbra
The Wonderbra Though it was first trademarked in 1955, the Wonderbra reached the peak of its popularity in the early 1990s following a surge in the U.K. markets. The company's Hello Boys ad campaign starring Eva Herzigova was featured on a billboard in New York City and as legend has it, led to a slew of car accidents.
Seinfeld The Bro
The Bro Featured in the Seinfeld episode The Doorman in 1995, The Bro was invented by Kramer to give George Costanza's father Frank a little support for his 'man boobs.' The two plan to go into business, but disagree on the name - Frank preferred The Manssiere.NBC/Getty Images
The Fembot Bra
The Fembot Bra These robotic femme fatales were sent to destroy Mike Myers' eponymous character in the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and used their lethal bras to spread pink poison gas.Newline Cinema
Claudia Schiffer Victoria's Secret Store
The Million Dollar Miracle Bra Launched with this five-story likeness of Claudia Schiffer on Dec. 4, 1996 in New York City, the diamond-encrusted push up bra was the first of Victoria Secret's yearly Fantasy Bras. The price tag on these luxury lingerie items has increased exponentially since then, and for the first time the company will debut two Fantasy Bras, valued at $2 million each, at the 2014 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.Evan Agostini—Getty Images
Brandi Chastain of the US celebrates after kicking
Brandi Chastain's Women's World Cup Bra After scoring the winning penalty kick against China in the 1999 Women's World Cup, Chastain took off her jersey and dropped to her knees in a now historic moment of celebration. The move landed her on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Newsweek.Robert Schmidt—AFP/Getty Images
20th Annual MuchMusic Video Awards - Show
Lady Gaga's Exploding Bra The chameleonic pop star debuted this piece of pyrotechnic lingerie at the 20th Annual MuchMusic Video Awards in 2009, inevitably drawing comparisons to Madonna's well-known conical look. Gaga was later photographed wearing the bra — sparks included — on the cover of TIME.Arthur Mola—WireImage/Getty Images
Katy Perry's Whipped Cream Bra
Katy Perry's Whipped Cream Bra The singer debuted this bra in the Candy Land themed-video for her 2010 hit single California Gurls, which features Perry dressed in several dessert-centric outfits.

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