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Protecting the seller

Say, you browse a store, any store, and come across an attractive item that is on sale. You’d be lukewarm to the idea of obtaining said item at its original listed price, but an ability to buy it at a discount closes the deal for you.

Now, suppose, as you reach the checkout and a clerk scans the barcode in, the original non-discounted price comes up on the register. You point out to the cashier that the advertised price is considerably below what they are attempting to charge you. What do you hear in response?

In America, more likely than not, the store management will apologize for their mistake and proceed to sell you the item at the discounted price. Customer satisfaction and a potential that said customer will come back for future purchases greatly outweighs any considerations of possibly making a loss on one single item. The manager will immediately make his personnel go over every single price tag to ensure that one such goodwill transaction (or a handful) does not bring them financial ruin, but she will not chance that the customer will leave dissatisfied and never come back.

Or possibly sue the store – there is probably a legal subtext to this behavior along the lines of false advertising.

And if something similar occurred in England?

You would get quoted the Sale of Goods Act, a periodically updated law that spells out rights and responsibilities of sellers and buyers. Among the tenets of the law is the notion that advertised price is nothing but “an invitation to treat” (as in “to bargain”), i.e., the store does not make you an offer to buy at that price, but rather you make the store an offer to sell at the quoted price. Which the store can refuse.

In other words, advertised prices can legally be set at levels below the actual ones, and the buyer may be left holding the bag if she is not careful. Not until the money exchanges hands does the price become a binding quote.

The other day, Natasha and my Mom went to a nearby mall, and in one of the shoe stores Natasha found a great pair of sandals for Becky for £16.99. Mom insisted that she’d pay for it as a present, and was handing over her credit card to the cashier, when Natasha realized that the register was displaying £43.99. She inquired as to why that was so, which elicited a lecture on how the store was protected by the law from having to sell at a “wrong” price. Natasha, knowing nothing of the aforementioned Act, tried to pull the lever of “shouldn’t you honor the prices that you advertise?”, to no avail. She turned around and left – the sandals were considerably less attractive at the higher price, and she felt that there was a principle to uphold.

You have one guess for how many times she will be a patron at that particular store again…

The advocates of this law point out that “everybody makes mistakes” and that a small business owner who makes several such pricing mistakes in a week could quickly go belly up if forced to honor the lower prices. And I can only think of: Wouldn’t you call a business owner who makes that many mistakes a bad businessperson? So, the law in effect protects bad businesspeople from owning up to their ineptitude…

Another proof of the well-known adage that while America promotes competition, European countries are hell-bent on protecting the competitors…