Holiday flyers can be misleading about deals

When it comes to flyers, some retailers appear to have broken the rules by exaggerating savings claims or not disclosing exclusions, CBC's Marketplace has found.

Shoppers can find deals are not what they appear to be

Jeff Smith saw this flyer online, that advertises "save up to 50 per cent on all toys," but found out that the toy he wanted wasn't considered a toy by Sears. (CBC)

Flashy flyers are everywhere these days as many Canadians deal with their holiday shopping lists.

But many bold deals aren't as good as they seem and may break advertising rules, a CBC Marketplace investigation reveals.

When Jeff Smith came across Sears' Black Friday flyer online for "Up to 50 per cent off all toys," he was eager to get a deal on a toy for his daughter.

While the toy Smith had his eye on wasn't in the flyer, he had seen it online before on the Sears website.

But when Smith tried to buy it, he was told that the sale on "all toys" didn't include this one.

Sears told Marketplace that even though "toy" was part of the name of the product on the company’s website, Sears considers it a home decor item, so it was exempt from the sale. (CBC)

Marketplace also found several examples of fine print that included important exclusions, qualifications and limitations that contradicted the overall message of the flyers.

"Does it result in people being misled? I'm afraid the answer is yes," says Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University.

  • The Marketplace investigation on misleading flyers, airs Friday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. NL, on CBC TV and online.
  • If you've seen a misleading flyer, post a picture on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #FlyerFail, or email a photo to

'Desperately lousy customer service'

Smith, who lives in Barrie, Ont., had his eye on a specific toy for his daughter that looks like an orange tabby cat and appears to breathe as it sleeps.

"She loves cats, and my mum had a similar toy. She loved it, and she put it on her Christmas list this year, so we had to get it," he says.

When Jeff Smith discovered the item wasn’t on sale, he was frustrated. “It didn't make sense to me,” Smith says. “It's only false advertising as far as I was concerned.” (CBC)

"It's a $45 toy, I figured 50 per cent off for Black Friday would be perfect, be just the right price," he says.

But when he discovered the item wasn't on sale, he was frustrated. "It didn't make sense to me," Smith says. "It's only false advertising as far as I was concerned."

Sears told Marketplace that even though the cat was called "Perfect Petzzz 'Sleeping Orange Tabby' Toy Pet" on the company's website, Sears considers it a home decor item, so it was  exempt from the sale.

"While it may be purchased as a toy, it is not categorized as a toy at Sears," a spokesperson from Sears wrote in an email.

After Marketplace contacted Sears, the company removed the word "toy" from the product description.

"They should have lived up to what he thought he read, that it had been classified as a toy, absolutely," says Middleton. "I think that is desperately lousy customer service. Number one, that is a stupid thing to do."

Sears told Marketplace that the item would be on sale beginning Dec. 4 and offered to sell Smith the toy for the sale price, about a 12 per cent savings. However, Smith had already bought the item at full price.

Where to complain

According to the Competition Act, ads should not be misleading. And the Competition Bureau says businesses should avoid using fine print.

Flyers are everywhere in the holiday season, many offering very enticing savings for holiday shoppers. (CBC)

"Do avoid fine print disclaimers. They often fail to change the general impression conveyed by an advertisement. If you do use them, make sure the overall impression created by the ad and the disclaimer is not misleading," the bureau's website says.

Advertising Standards Canada, a self-regulating body created by the advertising industry, also investigates complaints about misleading advertising, including flyers.

The group ruled against some large retailers this year, including Canadian Tire and Sears, for flyers that weren't accurate or clear because they contained undisclosed exclusions or exaggerated savings claims.

When the group finds against a retailer, it asks the company to remove the ad.

Consumers can submit a complaint about misleading advertising to both Advertising Standards Canada and the Competition Bureau.

But Middleton says complaining about misleading advertising on social media can also be a powerful tool for consumers.

"We are in a world now where the customer is finally beginning to be recognized as important by most smart organizations," he says.

And he says that when companies annoy customers, it comes at a price. "The peril isn't the Competition Bureau, the peril is there are alternatives, people telling each other, don't go there, they'll screw you."


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