Right around Black Friday, the term "bait and switch" gets thrown around quite a bit when describing doorbusting sales. But let's be clear: There's "Bait and Switch," and then there's "bait and switch."
One is a legal definition, prosecutable, and the other is colloquial, used liberally to designate unfair merchant practices. The legal instance of Bait and Switch is very rare, but the latter is the bane of every deal-seeker's existence. See an advertised price, attempt to purchase it, and then bam! the sale item is "sold out," and you're lead to buy a more expensive product instead.
False advertising, too, has been a common bait and switch tactic for years; a store may promote an item at a ridiculously low price to lure in shoppers, but never had, or intended to have, the item in the first place. It's an age-old practice, but one that's become less common now that we have the Internet to fact check and compare, and the Federal Trade Commission to enforce infractions.
Bait and Switch for Black Friday?
However, retailers are still accused of pulling a bait and switch, and it's usually around Black Friday when we start hearing this term in earnest. For the most part, missing out on a sale item and having to pay more for a product similar to the one advertised, is a matter of inventory more than anything else. That fine print "while supplies last" or "supplies are limited" indemnifies the retailer against legal ramifications.
But it doesn't protect any merchant from a shopper's wrath.
Sears was accused of a bait and switch in Louisville, Kentucky, on Black Friday last year. The local paper reported a disgruntled shopper that waited in line to buy an advertised 55" 3D HDTV bundled with a 3D starter kit and Blu-ray player. This deal was at a savings of more than $1,800, or so the story goes. But when the shopper missed out on the deal, a manager told him no such TV had ever been delivered to the store, which prompted the shopper's bait and switch accusation. Sears, when contacted, said it had been a "delivery misstep" and later made good on the item at the advertised sale price. The FTC and Better Business Bureau only get involved when a bait and switch incident is deliberate, or when they occur frequently, but neither are often the case.
In the Internet Age, it's too Risky for Most Merchants
"[Inventory supply is] a legitimate excuse on the part of the retailer," said retail consultant Neil Stern, a partner in the Chicago-based McMillan/Doolitte. "It's a reality of the supply chain today; it is global and complex, and things happen. Certainly it's not the intention of those retailers to engage in [bait and switch], because they can't get away with it" — especially in the age of mobile technology, price checking apps, and instant customer feedback, which could ruin a retailer with just one incident.
Therefore, most commonly, retailers either advertise an impressive discount, but have it apply to just one, outdated item, or promote deals that don't offer much actual savings. For instance, during Black Friday 2010, MacMall advertised "up to $400 off Macs," yet the largest discount dealnews could find was only $200 off one particular system, and most deals amounted to $20 to $40 off. DeepDiscount.com was another offender, advertising a 25% off sitewide sale that quit working.
Bait and switch schemes are more prevalent among big-ticket promotions on consumer electronics and appliances, which also tend to draw the biggest crowds. For most consumers, it can be a touch difficult to keep track of a myriad of electronics brands and prices. (But that's why you read dealnews!)
For the most part, retailers who are all hype have gone the way of Crazy Eddie, the infamous electronics retailer in New York who actually ended up in prison for embezzlement. Crazy Eddie ads were known for the screaming tagline, "Our prices are insane!"
And insane it is to think that a deal too good to be true actually exists, or exists in large enough quantities to be readily available to everyone, especially on Black Friday. Determined consumers will shop early this Black Friday and next, and employ online shopping tactics to better their chances of scoring the hottest deals. All online shopping methods aside, don't be surprised if you miss out on a great deal or if a hot ticket item sells out. You may feel mislead but remember, it's an inventory issue.