Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Nov 30 2007, 10:25PM

The frenetic holiday shopping season is here

The frenetic holiday shopping season is here. Personally, I haven't even dipped my toe in yet. But when I do, I know I'll see all sorts of misleading sales advertised. Here's the bottom line, sacrilegious as it may sound to the shop-til-you-drop set: Not every sale is a bargain and not every bargain is on sale.

Say you buy a gallon of milk every week for two dollars and fifty cents. Then, one day, you walk into the supermarket and see a huge sign: "Today only! Milk just $2.50!" You would know that's ridiculous because that's what you always pay for milk.

But what about things you don't buy so often --like refrigerators, stereos and winter coats? How will you know if the big sale claims are for real? To be a truly savvy consumer you need to be a good comparison shopper. (If it's any consolation, to be a good comparison shopper, you need to be a truly frequent shopper!)

Retailers play games to get our greedy little hearts going. What do you think those "compare at" price tags are all about? You know, the ones where the store states its price right underneath the "compare at" price which is supposedly what some other retailer charges. I know of a popular clothing store that marks its classic lines "50% off!" one month, then "buy one get one free" the next month ľand continues this cycle year round.

The New York attorney general cracked down on a store that claimed to be offering huge savings off the regular price. The A.G.'s office ruled that since the store always offered the products at the sale price, that was the true price and the items weren't discounted at all!

Some retailers will actually mark merchandise up just so they can mark it down. That way, you think you're getting a great deal, but the store's charging the amount it always wanted in the first place. This practice is actually illegal in some jurisdictions, but it's hard to prove because consumer watchdogs can't monitor stores every day all year round.

Shop Smart Magazine, a publication of Consumer Reports, found major department stores claiming to offer more than 50-percent off of things like knives, toaster ovens, irons and dishes. But when the magazine checked the actual manufacturer's suggested retail prices for the items, the savings were much more modest.

Stores that offer a "low price guarantee" in which they promise to beat their competitors' prices can be crafty too. Often these stores deliberately invent their own names and model numbers for their merchandise so it's difficult for you to shop and compare.

"Buy one, get the second at 50% off." Don't fall into this trap! If the extra item is something you really want, then great. But if you won't use it then don't pay the extra money. Same goes for jumbo-sized products that you buy in bulk. If the medicine will expire or the food will spoil before you can use it, it's not worth paying the extra money to "supersize" it.

1. Let's revise the old rhyme. It should be "comparison shop 'til you drop."
2. If you have big-ticket purchases planned, check prices online before heading to the store, so you'll know when you spot a bargain.