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Today marks 520 years since Christopher Columbus landed on the eastern seaboard and discovered what has today become known as North America. His journey to the new world has been celebrated ever since he touched the shores south of Florida in 1492, yet this day did not become a federal holiday until 1937. Since then, it has been celebrated as a day to remember his epic voyage that discovered our previously unknown nation and a day to remember our heritage. Many towns hold parades or other festivities in celebration. In the consumer world, it has become another day for retailers across the nation to advertise lower than average prices and other special deals—what today have become known as “sales.”

We hear the term “sale” thrown around in many different contexts to mean many different things, however many consumers may not know that there are Massachusetts regulations that define when a seller can or cannot advertise something as a “sale.”

“Sale” is actually an explicitly defined term under the Attorney General’s Retail Advertising Regulations. Under the Supreme Judicial Court decision in Purity Supreme v. Attorney General, these regulations carry the force of law in the Commonwealth. In order to use this term, or a few related variations, a retailer’s use must satisfy one of two conditions. “The actual former price, or the actual reduction stated as a fraction or percentage of the former price, [must be] clearly and conspicuously disclosed;” or, “The product offered for sale is being offered at a price of at least 10% below the former price of the same product if the former price was $200 or less, or 5% below the former price if the former price was more than $200.”

Under this definition, selling a car at $19,995 “reduced” from $20,000 cannot be advertised as a sale. Likewise, selling a $200 cell phone at a $10 discount cannot be advertised as “on sale.” This hasn’t stopped retailers from coming up with other terminology to circumvent the regulations (think “roll-back prices”), but at least protects consumers when it comes to this most common advertising term.

We hope that consumers enjoy this day of celebration and remember to shop smart at Columbus Day Sales.

 Ian Mabie is a student at Northeastern University and is the communications co-op at the Office of Consumer Affairs.

 

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