'Duped': Sears shoppers allege retailer inflated prices for liquidation sales

Several shoppers are upset after uncovering altered price tags during Sears liquidation sales. Sears Canada says the prices were marked up long before the start of the sale.

Retailer says the price markups happened long before it launched its big sale

Elizabeth MacMillan felt deceived when she went to a Sears liquidation sale to buy a T-shirt for her son, Ewan, and peeled off the price sticker to discover a cheaper price underneath. (Submitted by Elizabeth MacMillan)

Sears shopper Elizabeth MacMillan says she feels misled by the retailer's liquidation sales, where she found items priced higher than when she last visited the store. 

"I was really, really turned off," MacMillan said. "It's deceptive."

She's one of several customers CBC News interviewed who uncovered altered prices at Sears liquidation sales. They suspect price tags were marked up to offset the advertised discounts that ranged from 20 to 40 per cent.

Sears Canada told CBC News no re-pricing was done for the liquidation sales, as the discounts are applied at checkout.

MacMillan doesn't buy it.

She visited the same Stratford location about three weeks earlier to scope out some items. When she returned for the liquidation sale last week, she says she was confused because the same items had gone up in price.

When she peeled off the sticker, MacMillan discovered a T-shirt Sears priced at $9.97 had previously been priced at $7.97. (Elizabeth MacMillan/Facebook)

MacMillan pulled off the sticker price on a T-shirt she had eyed previously for her 10-year-old son.

The shirt was priced at $9.97, and underneath was the original, cheaper price she remembered: $7.97.

"It was like, 'OK, that's not cool,'" said MacMillan. "I was really, really taken aback."

As part of the liquidation sale, the T-shirt would be discounted by 20 per cent, which means she would be charged the original sticker price of $7.97. MacMillan didn't think that was a deal.

"It was very misleading," she said. "I ended up walking out without buying a thing."

'Duped, ripped off'

Venece Biggin had a similar experience last week at a Winnipeg Sears store's liquidation sale. She bought two T-shirts priced at $9.97, and with the advertised 20 per cent discount she paid $7.97 each.

It wasn't until she got home and her daughter peeled back the sticker price that she discovered the T-shirts were originally priced at $7.97 each.

"Duped, ripped off," was how Biggin described how she felt at that moment. "This is ridiculous. They shouldn't be allowed to do that."

Venece Biggin was unhappy after she discovered the two T-shirts she bought at a Sears liquidation sale had cheaper prices hiding under the $9.97 price tags. (Submitted by Venece Biggin)

CBC News also spoke with Evona Surgenor. In August, she scoped out the Prince Albert, Sask., Sears liquidation sale promoting 30 to 40 per cent discounts at checkout.

She says some products were priced higher compared to when she visited the store just two weeks earlier. So she closely inspected the $79.97 sticker price on an art print that clearly had another price hiding underneath.

Surgenor discovered the original price was $59.97.

"They're ripping people off," claims Surgenor. "It's not really a sale."

She posted photos of the price tag on Facebook to warn other Sears bargain hunters. "I didn't want other people getting duped," she said.

Evona Surgenor snapped this picture at a Sears liquidation sale in Prince Albert, Sask., where she noticed a $59.97 price lurking underneath the $79.97 price tag. (Submitted by Evona Surgenor)

CBC News spoke with four customers in all who uncovered cheaper hidden prices during the liquidation sales. 

Sears Canada told us that in all four cases the price hikes were not connected to the sale. The items had been "marked up some time ago, as part of a regular price increase taken as we entered a new season," spokesperson Vincent Power wrote in an email.

He said when employees do these routine price changes, they're supposed to remove the original price. "Someone took a shortcut," said Power.

This frame from a video sent to CBC News by Chris Wrinn shows him uncovering a cheaper price at a Sears liquidation sale in Hull, Que. in July. (Submitted by Chris Wrinn)

During Target Canada's liquidation sales in 2015, some customers also complained of price hikes.

Insolvency lawyer Geoffrey Dabbs says a retailer is free to raise prices right before a big sale as long it doesn't manipulate prices in a way that would deliberately mislead customers.

As long as that's not the case, "advertising a sale with discounts actually has no meaning whatsoever at law," says Dabbs, of Vancouver law firm Gehlen Dabbs. "So when a retailer says it's 20 per cent off, it's 20 per cent off of whatever it felt like selling it for."

Dabbs advises consumers to decide for themselves if they're getting a good deal.

In general, shoppers have embraced Sears' liquidation sales, Power told CBC News. "Customers are thrilled with the bargains they are getting; the stores are crowded."

And if shoppers discover a cheaper hidden price on an item, he says they can present it at checkout to get the liquidation discount on the lower price.

On hearing that news, Biggin plans to return to Sears to get back the $4 extra she spent by buying two T-shirts at the higher price.

But she says she's still bitter about her experience. "It's not right or respectful to the customer."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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