The unauthorized guide to fine print, holiday edition


When Ben Blout invoked a big-box store’s “low price promise” after discovering a lower price on his merchandise, he learned something customers rediscover every holiday shopping season: some restrictions apply.

Make that lots of restrictions.

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“They told me they won’t match any printed advertisement that is not valid for at least one week,” says Blout. “Specifically, their price match excludes timed events like early bird specials and door busters.”

Fine print is a problem any time of the year, of course. But most consumers get foiled by it around the holidays, in part because more people are shopping, and in part because of the extra offers with the extra restrictions.

Blout’s problem was unresolvable. The company responded, saying its policy was clear and fully disclosed, even though it was a loophole you could drive one of its stores strapped to a big rig through. I contacted the company and it didn’t even bother to reply. Perhaps it was too busy counting its holiday loot from duped customers like Blout.

You don’t have to be a victim of the mouse print at this time of year. Here’s a short list of my least favorite holiday disclaimers, and my interpretation of what they actually mean.

When they say: “Some restrictions may apply.”
They mean: “Lots of restrictions will apply!”

“Some restrictions” is the king of fine-print euphemisms. It means: Don’t hold us to anything we say in the ad. It means you may not be able to use the product as you intended. In fact, you may not get to use it at all if it’s nonrefundable. All that, and more, is disclosed in the fine print. You just have to know where to look for it. Yeah, that’s right. Look to the bottom of the offer and break out the magnifying glass. Then head to the law library to decipher it.

When they say: “Limit one per customer.”
They mean: “Not in stock.”

In order for a sale to mean anything, the items have to be in stock, right? When you see a warning like “limit one per customer” or the slightly more honest “supplies are limited” caveat, it means it’s probably too late. The other holiday shoppers have already snapped up the item, leaving the displays bare. But don’t worry — you can always find a similar item which, alas, is not on sale.

When they say: “Not valid in [insert name of your state.]”
They mean: “Not for you. Aren’t we a tease?”

Might as well say, “Not valid on days ending in ‘Y’” while they’re at it. The ubiquitous — and universally frustrating — “not valid” is certainly a sign of a halfhearted offer. A related fine-print “gotcha” is “void where prohibited.” Oh, shucks. I left my copy of the Code of Federal Regulations at home today. Mind if I borrow yours?

When they say: “No refunds after 30 days.”
They mean: “Our product is known to break after you buy it. Tick tock.”

Ever notice how trendy electronics come with a 30-day clause? If you’ve ever wondered why, try buying one. Go on. I can wait. They tend to break on the 31st day, that’s why. And I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t happen to me with a certain trendy phone that everyone had to own back in 2006. Nuff said. The 30-day clause is a big red flag flying in tatters in a gale-force wind. It means “our products break.” Often. And if you make the mistake of buying one of these gadgets for the holidays, then guess what? The clock is ticking as soon as you plunk down your credit card.

When they say: “Free with purchase.”
They mean: “You’ll pay for it.”

“Free” is one of the biggest lies in American business. Think about it. Is anything truly free? How about “buy one, get one free”? Well, you have to buy one to get one. But “buy two at half price” doesn’t have the same ring, does it? How about “free gift” with purchase? Even worse! It suggests the business likes you so much, it’s giving you something. Hang on, though. If you don’t buy something, do you still get the gift? Nope. Say it with me: There’s no such thing as free. Or just TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch).

By the way, if you want to have more fun with ridiculous disclaimers, check out, which features more of this kind of absurdity.

In the meantime, feel free to do a double-take when you see words like “limited,” “restricted” and “free” on a holiday offer. There’s probably more to it than meets the eye.

Do holiday offers have too much fine print?

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30 thoughts on “The unauthorized guide to fine print, holiday edition

  1. Merry Christmas all! Though after reading this article, all I could think was Bah Humbug!

    Regarding the 30-day return policy on electronics, that’s actually quite generous. Many places now have a 14-day return policy and some places charge a restocking fee if you return an opened package. The reason? Because some customers “rent” electronics for an event (think camera for graduation or TV for the big game) and then return it afterwards. The return policy and fee act as a deterrent against such actions.

  2. unfortunately allot of people only hear that they want to hear. even if every major store posted this list by all of their sales, a LOT of people would still get fooled.

    i say this because i have been asked no less then 10 times “everything in the store is 10 percent off right?”

    “No, Target did that for 2 days only.”

    People doing returns asked that. people doing Christmas shopping asked that, people on their way to the bathroom asked that- WHY?!

    also people keep asking “did Target ever resolve that hacking incident?”

    OMG?!!! They said they resolved it Thursday! They handed the media all the information!

    This is why even if you told people

    “When they say: “Limit one per customer.”

    They mean: “Not in stock.””

    People would still say “what do you mean? I know the ad has been out for 3 weeks, but how can you be sold out already?!”

    1. I worked retail and know where you’re coming from. Dealing with the general public is “interesting’. One cannot honestly make up the stories you see on a daily basis. People stealing items and trying to return the merchandise. Customers swapping price tags, thinking you’re a Moron. I once had a guy put a 30 dollar tag on a 100 dollar item. Rang up wrong item and price. When I questioned the guy, he’s like well umm well other stores sells it at this price. I said we don’t =).

      So yes…. one of many stories….There’s no legislating “Stupid”

  3. I’ve also noticed that when something is “buy one, get one free”, there’s always ONE left on the shelf. No one wants to buy the last one and not get the free one.

  4. I must respectfully disagree on some of these items

    Not valid in {XYZ} state is usually a result of either restrictive laws (e.g. NY not permitting wine imports), unusually high prices, or onerous shipping. For examples, many things are not shipped to the US Virgin Islands because most private shippers (e.g. Fedex, UPS) used to consider the USVI as international and priced shipping accordingly.

    No refund after 30 days. That’s perfectly reasonable. At some point the sale should be final and the salesperson receive the commission. Besides, some folks “rent” items like Big Screen TV’s for the Superbowl.

    Supplies are limited. The lie isn’t that they don’t have enough, the lie is that they have tons but want to create an illusion of urgency.

    Rehashing the “Free” issue serves no point

    1. Carver,

      Even advice isn’t free. Giving your opinion costs a few hundred dollars an hour =).

      Kidding aside, you covered the basics. State laws prohibit certain promotions and offers. Some states don’t allow incentivizing Gas, Alcohol, or Sweepstakes through specific offers. McDonald’s Monopoly Game prohibits prizes in Puerto Rico and Guam. Substitutions are offered in the fine print.

      Absent the Law, a company has a right to finalize sales. Product transactions are not open ended. Imagine if a retail offered products on “loan”. How do employees get paid if revenue is never finite? This month we sold 10 million, but hey maybe in 6 months 8 million is returned. No biggie, employee payroll and commissions are secondary.

      +1 We agree. Happy Holidays.

    2. Just a note: I believe NY does permit imported wine….or maybe I’m just not understanding what you mean by that. I’d love to know, because I do get wine sent to my NY address.

      1. Sure. Until recently, New York State generally prohibited direct to customer mail order wine sale from out of state vineyards. In-state vineyards were exempted from this law

        So a California vineyard would not be able to ship wine to a New York address and any advertisements would likely state not valid in NY.

        1. Carver, I have been getting mail order wine from CA to NY for several years now. In fact, when my daughter from MD ordered wine, she would have it sent to my address and I would bring it to her when I visited. MD may allow it now. I know they were considering it.

          1. Yes, it is a hard law to enforce and often flaunted. Nevertheless do a google search and you will confirm this. In fact, its the subject of some prominent cases. (Arnold, Granholm, etc.)

  5. ..and sometimes “free” is “free”. I needed to buy two video game systems and was having a hard time finding them in stock locally. I was on a trip and found them in a Wal Mart on the other side of the country. I took two systems off the shelf and went to purchase them. Neither I nor the cashier knew there was a $50 gift card that was given “free” with purchase! (The cashier was prompted to swipe a gift card to load the funds, that’s how we found out.)

    The promise of a gift card had nothing to do with my purchase and the marked price was the same as it had been the week before….when I couldn’t find them.

    To make sure I got both, the cashier even took the time to ring them up separately, just in case there was a limit of one per customer.

    Yes…I got the two game systems and then gave the $50 gift cards away with them as well…a “free” second present to give.

    1. Define the word “Free” mikegun? No Purchase Necessary to get the $50 gift card = Free. Man or Woman handing out Samples in the super Market = Free.

      What you received is a “Fringe Benefit”, “Perk”, “Bonus Item”, but under no circumstances free. Money exchanged hands. Therefore, the whole definition of free went out the door.

      Loyalty Programs incentive our purchases. You receive a secondary reward for patronage. These rewards are not without purchase or stipulation. Thus, not free.

  6. Because of the fine print games that they play and having had a bad experience trying to return an item that was defective (doing so three days after I purchased it and I had a receipt), I haven’t set foot in a Best Buy store for five years even though they have a store that is less than two miles from my home. I prefer to buy electronics on-line where there is less hassle, prices are lower, there is no sales tax if the seller does not have facilities in my state and returns are actually easier than dealing with the poorly trained employees who work at the Best Buy returns desk.

  7. Which is why I will buy something (anythnig) at Best Buy as the absolute last resort. Return/refund policy has to be in the top five worst of all retailers.

  8. Happy Holidays Folks.

    Fine print wasn’t invented yesterday, and the OP feigning shock over a failed holiday price match is laughable. Limited Quantities and Low Prices (subjective) are known loss leaders to get customers through the door. Sales are retailer specific, and there’s no secret, differing retailers won’t honor one another.

    While I applaud your efforts 99.9% of the time Chris , here I just shake my head at people getting upset when efforts to game the system fail.

  9. I had one from Harbor Freight. Coupon said in big bold red all caps “Take an EXTRA 20% off your TOTAL Purchase!” Come to find out that the words “extra” and “total” were flat out lies, since the offer could not be combined with any other sale, coupon, or discount, and any item on sale or otherwise discounted did not count toward the total purchase that you could use the coupon on. I understand not typically being able to apply coupons to already discounted items, but this one made a big deal about being “extra”, which means in addition to, on top of, other sales. I wrote to the company about the false advertising and got dead air in return. Surprise.

  10. What site did I just see about getting something for free? If anyone could help me out I’d appreciate it. Specifically it reads “If you want to connect with other informed consumers, why not sign up for our free weekly newsletter, RSS feed or free daily email updates?”. Thanks. 😉

  11. Chris,

    Here’s the new approach to “Free”.

    Companies incentivize our shopping habits. Loyalty Programs require specific purchases to receive Perks, Fringe Benefits, or Bonuses Offers. Corporate use of the verbiage “Free” runs contradictory to the true meaning. I go to the supermarket and receive “Free Samples”. No money exchanged hands. I cannot go to an Airline and ask for “Free Reward Travel”, having never spent a dime.

    Fill in the rest =). There’s my Holiday Gift .

  12. The word “gift” means something given with nothing in return. All gifts are by definition free. The phrase “free gift” is redundant if the words mean what they mean. A “gift” with purchase is not a gift,. Call it a bonus. Call it a premium. But it is not a gift. If it were, I could return the thing I paid for and keep the free gift. It was free, wasn’t it? And it was a gift, right?

    As for fine print, it now often appears on a different printed page, or on a website, or “see store for details” (yeah, sure), or in small white letters on a dark background where the ink bleeds and obscures the type. Even worse are the faint white disclaimer lines that flash for 2 seconds during a TV ad. Then there are the “after rebate” prices, where the rebates never come. Magnifying glass not included.

    1. Some advertisements state that if you return the product you may keep the “Free” gift. Of course, those advertisements also state that you still pay the “shipping” and “handling”.

  13. Some years ago I ran into a “small print” gimick that wasn’t mentioned. A local electronics dealer advertised that they would match any advertised lower price for the same item.

    I brought them an ad from a competing discount dealer and they pointed out that the items weren’t the same. The TV was the same company, brand, size, and
    attributes but the model number differed in the last digit; I’m making this up
    from my recollection: one was SB 5678-1 and theirs was SB5678-2. I ended up paying them the higher price because they were a local store and had a reputation for after-sales reliability.

    Then I decided to investigate. It seems the manufacturer sold the -2 models
    to independent dealers and the -1 to big box, discount, retailers. I assume the difference in numbers was to thwart price comparison for those who wished to advertise they would meet competing prices with a loop-hole if they chose to take it.

    I sent a copy of my investigation to the owner of the store from which I purchased the TV and to his credit he sent me a check for the difference. Shame on the manufacturer for facilitating a fraud on the public.

    1. This particular “scam” sounds like it was borrowed from the mattress folks. Manufacturers often slap a different name on the same mattress for different companies.

  14. So, what is the name of the “big-box store” and why wasn’t it revealed in the article? I’d love to know whom else not to patronize.

    And a happy Christmas to those who indulge (and to those who just celebrate modestly.)

  15. Through experience we’ve learned to ask for details on “specials”.

    A recent example occurred a chain restaurant we frequent. They had a “today only” special where you could purchase a $100 in gift card and receive a $25 certificate at no additional cost:

    – The cards covered tax but NOT gratuities (e.g., they could not add $6 to your $30 bill, leaving $70 available for a future meal or meals)
    – The certificate did NOT cover taxes OR gratuities

    When we inquired further, it turns out that:

    – We could split the $100 into cards with smaller amounts* and then leave the WHOLE card (or cards) , the remainder of which THEY could use for a gratuity (h-m-m-m-m …)
    – The certificate could also be split into smaller amounts*

    We prefer not to purchase cards and then have to leave a tip besides (cash or credit card), as it seems to defeat the point. Not saying they were dishonest – just that we asked because of past issues.

    So we bought $20 cards (covers our normal meal cost PLUS tax and tip) and used ONE certificate for a more expensive meal we do not normally purchase.

    * as low as $5

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