Save money even when a sale item is out of stock

Ask the store to substitute an item of equal or higher value

Published: September 16, 2013 04:00 PM

Illustration: Andrew Baker

When you find an empty shelf where an item on sale that you wanted to buy should be, remember that many retailers will offer goods of equal or even greater value as a substitute for out-of-stock merchandise. By just remembering to ask, you may be able to save money and get a product that's even better than the one you were shopping for.

For instance, during a recent visit to my local supermarket, I found that the 12-ounce can of store-brand honey roasted peanuts, on sale for $2.50, was sold out. So I asked a store employee if I could substitute the Planters 12-ounce can on sale at $3.49. No problem, he said, arranging for me to buy the brand-name product at the lower price.

Okay, so I saved just 99 cents on the brand name item, which may have been no better than the store brand one. (Read our recent report on store brands and name brands.) But I did get the sweet-salty snack I was craving, which was my main goal, and in the same size and at the discounted price I wanted to pay. And who knows? Next time, instead of a low-cost food item, it could be a television or some other product for which the savings is more than, well, peanuts.

For more money saving tips, check out our supermarket and retail store buying guides.

What to do

If a product is out of stock, find out whether the retailer has already designated a substitute item. Look for signs or ask customer service. If not, search the store for an equivalent product on your own and suggest that the store let you substitute that, just as I did.

Of course, make sure the substitute item is of at least equal value and that it's something you’ll be satisfied with. Check the package size, product colors and features, and, for substantial products, warranty coverage, Consumer Reports ratings, user reviews, and other details.

In 2010, our sister website, The Consumerist, featured an inside look at how Target employees were instructed to come up with substitute products for out-of-stock on-sale ones.

If you don’t think the item the store is willing to substitute is equivalent or better than the out-of-stock one, skip it. An alternative you often have is to obtain a rain check, which lets you buy the item you came for in the first place for the same sale price when it's available. In some states, including Florida and Massachusetts, the law requires retailers to issue rain checks for many types of sale items.

One caution: Retailers that routinely provide product by delivery, including online stores, may have terms and conditions that allow them to substitute an “equivalent” item automatically if the one you ordered is out of stock. If that doesn’t sound good to you (and it probably shouldn’t), check the fine print carefully before buying.

Anthony Giorgianni

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