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The science behind sales policies

A recent caller to our Action number posed the question: Are retailers allowed to advertise items that they don't have in stock?

Florida Statute 817.41 (5) states that retailers cannot knowingly advertise merchandise if they do not have sufficient quantities to meet the reasonably foreseeable demand unless the ad states that only a limited quantity is available and gives the approximate number or unless the retailer provides a rain check that can be used to obtain the item at the advertised price within a reasonble period of time.

We wanted to find out how a large retailer establishes sales policies, so we spoke with Sears spokesperson Jan Drummond in Hoffman Estates, near Chicago. What we learned is that it is a science.

The Sears advertising supplement that is inserted in your paper every Sunday generally carries the same merchandise nationwide. However, the entire United States is divided into seven different regions that share common characteristics, such as weather. Some sale items will be seasonal and will reflect these differences. You may find swimsuits on sale in January in Florida but not in Alaska.

In all, there are about 70 different variables that a buyer looks at when determining what items to offer for sale at what price and in what quantity.

Examples are price differential, which is the difference between the regular price and the sale price; whether the item is featured on the supplement cover, the back or inside, and what the competition offers similar merchandise at in the area. Thus it is possible to find the same items advertised for different prices on the west coast versus the east coast of Florida.

Even the weather is a variable. Sears subscribes to meteorological software to try to forecast the weather. Buyers use this information to select sale merchandise as well as to predict volume of traffic. There are more shoppers on cold, drizzly days, for instance, than warm, sunny ones.

With regard to the question of quantity, Drummond said Sears' buyers try to accurately predict what the precise demand will be. It is never their intention, he said, to not have an appropriate amount on hand. If an item is sold out, she said, it is Sears' policy to offer a rain check or substitute a similar product.

Add-on shop charges

An item in the Jan. 16 Action column mentioned the practice of car repair shops billing for "shop supplies." I agree with the complainant. This practice could better be considered a "surscam" rather than a surcharge.

I recently had a job done and figured that the only supplies used were a few cents' worth of grease, a dab of hand cleaner and a rag for the mechanic to clean his hands, yet a $10 charge was added to my bill. When you consider that this is added to every repair bill, it doesn't take a genius to realize that this is nothing but an elaborate scheme to add to their profit.

I would appreciate your referring this to the appropriate state consumer affairs department for clarification. Charles Ricchi

Response: A year ago February, the offices of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Bob Crawford and Attorney General Bob Butterworth issued a statement regarding the incidental charges that auto repair shops add on to their bills.

The add-on charges in question were for hazardous waste disposal and shop supplies. More than 20,000 notices were sent to auto repair businesses warning them that misleading billing could be violations of the State's Motor Vehicle Repair Act and/or Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and could result in sanctions and fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

The state's investigation found that some waste disposal charges were disguised as government-imposed fees. In fact, they were fees charged by the shop. The investigation also found that some shops were charging for supplies that had nothing to do with the nature of the work that had been done or the materials that had been used. These miscellaneous charges disguise the cost of normal overhead and, as you suspected, boost the shop's profits.

There are a number of things repair shops must do to avoid sanctions:

They must disclose all add-on costs at the time of the estimate or initial repair order.

They must label all charges accurately. Charges for hazardous waste disposal should relate to the actual hazardous waste disposal required for a given job, and charges for shop supplies should relate to the shop materials used for the specific repair.

Consumers who believe that they have been mistreated by repair shops should call state officials at (800) 435-7352, then press or say 4.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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