COLUMBIA, Md. (WJLA) - Mary Altaner and her husband were trying get a jump on their holiday shopping recently when they dropped in on the JCPenney in suburban Maryland when the price of a polo shirt seemed too good to be true.
What Altaner quickly realized was that despite the shirt being marked as 25 percent off, the store had already marked up its original price from $25 to $30, negating much of the perceived discount.
She and other customers have taken notice here at other stores, where advertised discounts aren't as they seem because the store's initial markup makes the sale price less appealing.
"We've found other examples at other times and we've asked," Altaner said. "At one point, a woman said, 'I guess they forgot to mark one up before the sale.'"
A hidden camera investigation at several JCPenney stores in Maryland and Virginia revealed that the scheme wasn't limited to those shirts or that store. At multiple locations, items were found that appeared to be market up, then put on sale.
At one store, a sign advertises polo shirts discounted from $26 to $14.99, but under the original price bears the shirt's real MSRP - $18. Sweaters at the same store are marked as half off $30, but the original price already is lower.
"It really makes you want to beware of shopping there," Mary's husband, Tim, said.
In a statement, JCPenney officials said:
Last year, we implemented an everyday low pricing structure that was ultimately rejected by JCPenney's core customer. We learned that our customers are motivated by promotions and prefer to receive discounts through sales and coupons applied at checkout.
As such, we have returned to the promotional pricing model employed often in the retail industry. This shift requires us to make pricing changes on much of the merchandise to remain competitive.
In addition, under this promotional pricing model, any time an item is put on sale the item must have been previously sold at its original or regular price for a reasonable period of time.
While we understand this transition back to promotional pricing may cause some temporary confusion, the Company remains committed to delivering the quality, price and value that customers expect from JCPenney.
But JCPenney is not the only store to pull off this action, and certainly not the first to be caught. Last year, similar pricing practices were found at several regional Kohl's department stores.
That chain is now being sued by a man in California on false advertising claims. Kohl's declined to comment.
At the end of Altaner's experience, she ended up complaining to store management and got the lower price.
"When you catch it, they'll honor it," she says, "but how many people are catching it?"