Report: Amazon Still Promoting Phony Discounts

For years, Amazon has often used the “manufacturer’s suggested list price (MSRP)” as a reference price for many products to be able to claim that Amazon’s current selling price would save shoppers a huge sum of money. Savvy consumers know that very few items ever sell at full MSRP, so any savings claimed compared to that number are likely to be fictitious. We have previously shown you crazy examples where Amazon even used inflated reference prices to facilitate their 80% and 90% off claimed discounts in some cases.

Almost exactly a year ago, we reported that Amazon apparently had discovered consumer religion and was dropping many of its phony comparisons to list prices. The change was likely a result of several lawsuits about their deceptive pricing practices.

More recently, Consumer Watchdog, a California advocacy group, noticed that Amazon was now advertising discounts from “was” prices (such as “Was $49.99” “Now 39.99” “Save 20%”). Sometimes the comparison just showed a price with a line through it, without explanation of what that comparative price actually represented.

So, like any good consumer group, they decided to conduct a survey. In June, they checked 1,005 items to see if Amazon’s new way of making price comparisons was less deceptive than the old way. They used a website called The Tractor, which maintains price histories for items sold by Amazon. In this way, they could see if the claimed “was” price was ever really charged by Amazon. See their full report.

The key findings included:

  • Amazon displayed reference prices on 46 percent of the products surveyed.
  • 61 percent of all reference prices were higher than any observed price charged by Amazon in the recent past (defined as 90 days).
  • In nearly four in ten cases, Amazon never appeared to charge the previous price from which it claimed to be discounting. It was entirely fictitious.
  • 83 percent of crossed-out prices on sale items exceeded the highest historical price in Tractor’s records. On average, they were double the highest price Amazon had charged previously.
  • Here are some specific examples from their study:


    Hammermill paper

    According to the study, you really were not saving almost 50% on this paper. Rather than $17.78 being the regular price for this paper at Amazon just prior to the sale as some might believe, there were only four periods lasting no longer than a day or two when that was the actual price in the past year at Amazon. Neat trick, huh? As a matter of law in Massachusetts, for example, advertising regulations require that an item be offered at regular price for 14 consecutive days first before it is discounted. And then it needs to be at full regular price for about 36% of the time if the seller is going to continue to make a comparison to the “regular” price. (There are other rules that can apply here too.)


    Amazon leather bag

    There was only six months-worth of price history on this item, but during that time, the most that Amazon charged was $26 — nowhere near the crossed out price of $149.99.

    Federal Trade Commission guidelines state:

    “If the former price is the actual, bona fide price at which the article was offered to the public on a regular basis for a reasonably substantial period of time, it provides a legitimate basis for the advertising of a price comparison…. If, on the other hand, the former price being advertised is not bona fide but fictitious – for example, where an artificial, inflated price was established for the purpose of enabling the subsequent offer of a large reduction – the “bargain” being advertised is a false one…”

    It is sad that a seller like Amazon, with its tens of millions of customers, seemingly continues to resort to using these deceptive pricing practices.

    90% Off Groceries at Amazon? Ho, Ho, No!

    [Note: the next Mouse Print* posting will be January 3.]

    MrConsumer recently came across a website that helps people find deeply discounted items on Amazon. What a great idea.

    When checking what items in Amazon’s grocery department were supposedly 90% off, Mouse Print* found some startling savings claims.

    They claim savings of 93%, yet they are still charging over $1.50 for each regular size pack of gum. How is that possible?


    Amazon claims the list price for those 12 packs of gum is a whopping $284.52 — that’s $23.71 for a single package! Was this gum previously chewed by Elvis, thus accounting for its premium price? The full price for one pack of Trident Layers is $1.49 (at Kmart), so 12 packs should be about $17.88 full price, not almost $285. Clearly something is not right here. Is this an isolated incident? Unfortunately no. Item after item listed in the 90% off section had grossly exaggerated list prices that bear no relation to real world regular prices.

    Twelve packages of gummy bears marked right on the package “2 for $1” list for $6, not $95 as Amazon claims. A two pound can of Folgers coffee is not $146 anywhere, just over a pound of Pringles doesn’t list for the $159 the site claimed, and less than six pounds of Twizzlers doesn’t have a value of over $271.

    How could Amazon put such exaggerated list prices on its site in order to claim savings of over 90%? We asked Amazon’s PR department to comment, but no response was received. Miraculously, however, two weeks after contacting them, the exaggerated regular prices of most of these and other groceries disappeared.

    Of course, this doesn’t explain why Amazon’s 90% off page for groceries still shows more than 300 items most of which are not actually 90% off.


    If you find examples of hard goods, such as electronics, cameras, or appliances with a stated list price on Amazon that is higher than the actual suggested list price, please send those examples to Mouse Print* ( edgar [at symbol] ). Thanks.