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Lloyd Omdahl, Published January 08 2012

Omdahl: Mythical holiday bargains

The credit card bills for our wild holiday spending have started arriving, and they attest to the fact that we did not get as many Black Friday bargains as we had thought. And if we paid the minimum amount indicated on those credit card bills, we would be paying for the 2011 Christmas until 2029.

When stores were offering 60 percent off of the regular price, another 30 percent for buying on Tuesdays and another 20 percent in coupons good every day, we were convinced that our credit card bills would reflect tremendous savings. Not so!

Even with these great alleged bargains, we had to shell out substantial amounts of money, making us suspicious of the whole retail system. Holiday season 2011 was a hard lesson, but we have now learned a few things that will be instructive the next time around.

Take the word “sale.” For most people, the word conjures up the idea of a bargain price. But that has not been true since Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon.

When T.J. saw that “For Sale” sign in New Orleans, the word “sale” was still in its purest form. It meant a real deal. Since then, however, the word has been recklessly exploited by predatory pricing. Its real meaning has been ruined.

Today, the word “sale” just means that the retailer has it available for you to buy – but not necessarily at a reduced price. There are no more Louisianas for sale. So we need to be wary of anything called a “sale.”

Then there were the “off the regular price” deals. Everything sold this Christmas was at least 60 percent off. But there never was a regular price. “Regular price” was a fiction created by the retailer as a starting point for a great discount charade.

For most merchandise, it was never offered for sale at some unknown regular price. Chances were good that “60 percent off the regular price” was no better than an ordinary “sale” posing as a bargain.

Pricing was not the only thing that should have aroused our suspicions. It was the size of the container. Have you noticed how the three-flavored popcorn tins have shrunk every Christmas since 1997? They are now down to the size of an oil can. With so little popcorn, the container has become the principal investment.

The same thing has been happening to clothes. Full-fitting shirts and pants have lost their margin of error. Everything is getting tighter as manufacturers cut off an inch here and an inch there. Size 10 has shrunk to size 9. It’s obvious. As garments get tighter and obesity rises, more and more people are leaking out of their clothes.

Now the announcement of a post-Christmas “storewide clearance” really gets the heart rate up. We are often chagrined to find that “storewide clearance” doesn’t mean bargain-basement discounts. It simple means that the retailer will sell you anything in the store for a price.

Since bitter disappointments are making consumers smarter every year, retailers are challenged to come up with new convincing claims that will lure us from Black Friday to Red January again next year. So in Christmas season 2012, I’m going to be on my guard when it comes to great sales and good deals based on “regular” prices and scandalous hyperbole.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.