KATU Problem Solvers: Store raising prices before sales

KATU Problem Solvers: Store raising prices before sales »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - When you buy something on sale, you assume that you're getting the best possible price. But what if you’re not?  What if a major retailer was jacking up prices before putting products on sale? 

KATU Problem Solver Shellie Bailey-Shah spent three months investigating the pricing practices at Kohl's department stores.

Kohl’s slogan is “Expect Great Things.” Regular customers have come to expect great sales.

“That’s why I come here for kids' stuff (because of the sales),” said Arlene Robertson, a shopper at the Kohl’s store in Beaverton.

“(I come) mostly for the sales and the price,” said Tim Saeland, another Beaverton shopper.

But is the sales price at Kohl’s the store’s best price?

Over three months, Bailey-Shah and a KATU photographer went shopping at the Kohl's in Beaverton, Hillsboro and Northeast Portland. They found product after product put on sale only after the price had been jacked up.
For example, a knife set was priced at $99.99. It was on sale that day for $69.99. That seems like a savings of a savings of $30. But we found the original price tag underneath was $79.99, meaning the savings was really only $10.

In another case, a pair of boys socks were marked “buy one, get one half of.” But before that sale started, the price was increased by a dollar.

Sometimes we didn't even need to peel back the stickers to find a better price. In several examples, the new, higher price was right next to the old, lower one.

Of course, not every item on sale at Kohl's has been marked up first. But during Bailey-Shah’s three visits, she found more than 50 examples of this “mark up before mark down” strategy.

“They make you think you're getting a great deal,” said shopper Tiffani Trecher.

“That is not right,” said Francine Cach, also shopping at the Beaverton store.

And it doesn't end there. Bailey-Shah found more than a dozen examples where the sale price was actually more than the original price.

Food Network bowls, priced at $29.99, were on sale one day for $20.99. However, the original price on the sticker underneath was $19.99 – $1 less.

Vera Wang sheets were priced at $149.99, on sale for $104.99. But when Bailey-Shah lifted the sticker, the original price tag was $89.99 – $15 less.

Another sheet set was priced at $169.99, on sale for $118.99. The original price? Just $99.99 – $19 less than the sale price.

 “That is very sneaky. That shouldn't be the way that they do things,” Saeland said when told about the practice.

“I’m going to be going in there and peeling back all the stickers now,” promised Trecher.

But will that help get you a better deal?

Bailey-Shah took a package of Vera Wang sheets to the register at the Northeast Portland store and asked if she could have the 30 percent discount on the original lower price. The answer from two store managers: no.

She did the same thing at the Beaverton store. The answer there: yes, saving an extra $49.

Bailey-Shah then told the Beaverton store manager that she was with the KATU Problem Solvers and asked about Kohl's pricing policies. The manager said that price increases are dictated by the manufacturers, not Kohl's.

She put the same question to Kohl's corporate higher-ups on several occasions. 

“Price increases at Kohl's are not common; however, the unprecedented increases in the cost of certain commodities, such as cotton over the past 24 months, have caused us to take these actions,” wrote Vicki Shamion, Kohl's Senior Vice President of Public and Community Relations, in a prepared statement.

Soon you may not be able to tell when Kohl’s prices have been jacked up at all.

At the Hillsboro store, Bailey-Shah noticed that hardly any products had sticker price tags. Instead the store is using electronic signs, which allow prices to be adjusted – up or down – with a simple key stroke. The customer will have no way to know what the original price was.

If you want to find the true lowest price, you do have a few tools in your arsenal.

•    Try to get an adjustment at the register.
•    Use a bar code scanner app on your smartphone to see if the sale price at Kohl's is really the best price available.

Bailey-Shah checked with both the Oregon and Washington attorneys general to see whether Kohl's pricing policies are legal. As long as Kohl's can make a case for raising prices in good faith - for example, when production costs go up, as they claimed with the sheets - the store appears to be in the clear.

Bailey-Shah also checked prices at two other stores known for their frequent sales - Payless Shoes and Macy's.  She found no evidence of price increases prior to sales at either chain.

“If any customers are unhappy with their purchases for any reason, we would hope and encourage that they take advantage of Kohl’s quick, convenient and hassle-free return policy,” Shamion said.