May 23, 2019

Exceptions to grocery store rain checks

Are you trying to cut your food bills? Do you regularly shop for special sale items at food stores that advertise in newspapers and flyers? If you answer yes then you know that advertised specials can disappear quickly.

If your grocer advertises an item and it is not on the grocery shelf, ask for it. If the stare has run out, you can ask about a rain check. If the advertisement did not say quantities were limited, the grocer will probably want to offer you some form of compensation. The Federal Trade Commission’s Unavailability Rule says how, and if, you and other customers should be compensated.

The FTC issued the Retail Food Store Advertising and Marketing Practices Rule in 1971. Commonly known as the Unavailability Rule, its purpose is to protect consumers against food stores that use misleading advertising and marketing practices. Under the original version of the rule, food stores could not advertise special sales on items that were not stocked in quantities to meet reasonably anticipated demand at the sale time. The rule was aimed at grocers who advertised bargains to attract customers but failed to have adequate supplies available in the store. However, the rule may have discouraged rain checks because a grocer who inadvertently ran out of an item was still in violation of the rule, even if a rain check was offered.

The FTC amended the Unavailability Rule in 1989. The amended rule allows grocers to comply with the rule by offering rain checks. It also gives gracery stores more flexibility to advertise items that are available only in limited quantities or at certain outlets. This means you are likely to see “limited supply” or similar words mentioned in sales advertisements when certain stores may not be able to stock some items in large quantities. Such items may be seasonal products like holiday cakes or perishables such as fruits and vegetables.

The rule now requires retail food stores to have adequate stock to meet reasonable demand for items advertised for sale at specific prices unless the advertisement clearly and adequately says quantities are limited or that products are available only at some stores. If a store does nat disclose the limited availability of an advertised item and runs out of the item, the Unavailability Rule excuses the store only when the store offers customers one of three alternatives:

A rain check that allows customers to buy the item later at the lower price.

A substitute item of comparable value to the sale item.

Some kind of compensation that is at least equal in value to the advertised item.

Or when the faod store can show to the FTC that advertised items were ordered in adequate time for delivery and in quantities to meet reasonably anticipated demand.

If a store runs out of advertised specials, ask for a rain check, a substitute or other compensation. Chances are you will get something because most grocers want to satisfy their customers.

If you know of a grocery store that routinely runs out of advertised specials, fails to say when specials are limited, and does not provide you with a rain check, a substitute item, or some other compensation, write to the Federal Trade Commission, Enforcement Division, Washingtan, D.C. 20580. Letters from shoppers can help the FTC identify food retailers that may not be complying with the rule.

Consumer Forum is a collaborative effort of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT. Send your questions to Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. COMBAT is a membership organization with basic dues of $10 a year. For membership information and a free copy of the COMBAT newsletter, write to the above address. Please enclose a large, stamped, self-addressed envelope.

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