When is a deal not a deal?
Lately, it seems like the answer is "all the time." We've been seeing retailers offer all sorts of deals and coupons that don't stand up to scrutiny, either because they're loaded with terrible fine print or because they don't actually offer any kind of discount.
Another problem: When the coupon is so confusing that neither the customer nor the cashier can make sense of what kind of discount you're getting.
Take this coupon from Dick's Sporting Goods (DKS), which The Consumerist has been puzzling over. The coupon offers a buy-one-get-one deal on a collapsible armchair, then notes that it's regularly priced at $11.99 each, but on sale for two for $15.
We're confused. Are you buying it at the regular price of $11.99, then getting a second one for free with the coupon? Or is the coupon making it two for $15 -- that is, jacking up the price to $15 before it will give you the buy-one-get-one deal? Or perhaps, as one reader suggests, the chairs were already on sale for two for $15, but if you use the coupon you're getting a BOGO deal instead, for $12.
Here's the problem: If it's this ambiguous, it's going to be left up to the discretion of your local store. That's bad for consumers, because it means the store is going to go with the interpretation that costs more ("Sir, it says right here that it's $15"). It's bad for the store, because you're going to have angry customers arguing the point and holding up the line ("I'm buying one at the regular price, and this says you have to give me one for free!"). It's supposed to save people money, and instead it's causing all sorts of headaches.
We've seen some truly egregious coupons -- ones that exclude hundreds of brands, for instance, or ones that don't actually deliver the savings they promise. But this isn't one of them: It's only a difference of $3, the ambiguity was probably unintentional, and it still seems like a pretty good deal regardless of how you read it.
Still, this isn't the first time we've seen fine print that left us scratching our heads, and it won't be the last. When we called for a shoppers' bill of rights, one proposed entry was that coupons and deals shouldn't have excessive fine print and restrictions. But to that we'd add that coupons shouldn't leave you scratching your head and fighting with cashiers over the proper interpretation.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau developed a standard, easy-to-understand credit card agreement aimed at making simple card comparisons possible. Wouldn't it be nice if someone could do the same for coupons?
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.