When Jennifer Johnston went shopping for a pair of pants at Winners in Whitby, Ont., she thought she'd found a good deal. The pants were on sale for $29.99, with a "compare at" price of $80, or more than 60 per cent off.
But next to the tag she discovered another tag with the manufacturer's suggested retail price: $29.99, the same amount that Winners was charging.
"It was out and out false advertising," Johnston says. "That experience made me very indignant, very angry, very frustrated and totally betrayed."
CBC's Marketplace investigated the accuracy of Winners' "compare at" prices, which suggest to consumers they're getting products for a lower price than they would pay at another store.
Marketplace bought a number of products from Winners — including perfume, clothing, toys and personal care items — and could not find many of the items for the "compare at" price.
- The Marketplace investigation on Winners "compare at" prices airs Friday, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. NL, on CBC TV and online
'Compare at' pricing not always comparable
Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever: How To Shop in a Discounted World, says he's seen similar pricing tactics in off-price retail stores in the U.S., and that consumers should not put much stock into the "compare at" price on retailers' tags.
"Absolutely zero. No trust at all in that 'compare at' price. That could have been plucked from thin air," he says.
"Compare at pricing is one of those tricks that works on the way our brains are structured," says Ellwood, who lives in New York.
"When we see two numbers, we instantly look at the higher one and take notice of it. It's called anchor pricing. We see 100 and the minute we see a 100 and then 20, we see the difference."
Marketplace bought a number of items from a Winners store in the Toronto area.
In one case, Marketplace researchers found a Risk board game at Winners offered at $49.99, with a "compare at" price of $100. However, the game was available at full price from retailer F.G. Bradley's Canadian website for $74.99.
A pair of Nine West shoes was priced as $69.99, with a "compare at" price of $130. Marketplace found the same pair of shoes at Nine West Shoe Studio at a regular price of $99.99.
Marketplace did find examples where the "compare at" price accurately reflected what other retailers were selling the product for, including a bottle of men's cologne.
In many cases, Marketplace couldn't find the items at other Canadian stores online.
Winners says comparisons are accurate
Winners declined to speak with Marketplace on camera about the investigation, but sent a statement detailing the company's "compare at" pricing.
"Our 'compare at' price reflects our buyer's assessment of the regular, retail selling price of a comparable item in traditional department or specialty stores."
Winners says its "compare at" prices are accurate and fair but says its stores receive thousands of items each week and sometimes errors can occur.
While Winners disputed a number of Marketplace's findings, the retailer changed the prices on some of its items after Marketplace contacted the company, including the Risk board game.
After Johnston contacted Winners, the company said the "compare at" price on the pants was an error.
Parent company faces legal action
In the U.S., Winners' parent company, TJX, is the subject of a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of misleading pricing tactics in its U.S. T.J. Maxx stores, which also use "compare at" pricing.
TJX is disputing the lawsuit's claims.
In some T.J. Maxx stores in the U.S., there are signs informing customers the "compare at" price is "our buying staff's estimate of the regular, retail price at which a comparable item in finer catalogs, specialty or department stores may have been sold."
Johnston isn't sold. "I'm very careful about what I buy there now, moreso than I used to be," she says. "It's hard to trust what you see on the tags anymore."