When is a sale not a sale?

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50 percent off of what?


Saeid Azimpour just wanted a pillow. A place to rest his head at night so that he might keep on dreaming the American dream.

Azimpour also wanted a deal. So one day last July, the San Diego resident went shopping at a nearby Select Comfort store. There, he found the "down alternative pillow," which, in its "firm support" variety, was not only suitable, it was a steal.

A colorful tag advertised "50% off" its original price of $89.99. Azimpour left the store with a receipt in his pocket for $48.59, including tax.

It wasn't until months later that he realized what had happened. His pillow wasn't on sale — not in the get-it-while-it's-hot meaning. The same "half-off" deal was still being advertised in November. If your "sale" never ends, Azimpour reasoned, the item is not on sale. That's just the price.

We've all felt like this, duped by marketing. But Saeid Azimpour did something almost no one does. He sued the bastards.

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In December, he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court of Minnesota, accusing Select Comfort, based in Plymouth, of selectively ripping him off. His complaint accuses the company of violating the Minnesota Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act, a statute that outlaws "false pretense, false promise... or deceptive practice" that convinces consumers to shell out cash.

He wants Select Comfort to stop its fraudulent practice, and he wants his money back.

In fact, Azimpour wants everyone's money back. His is a class-action suit. If the judge certifies it as such, an estimated "hundreds of thousands" of clients would be eligible for refunds in excess of $5 million.

Ambitious though it may seem, his case is not without precedent: Kohl's was hit with the same sort of suit last year, and the retailer ultimately settled out of court for $1 million, avoiding the admission its sales were deceptive.

Select Comfort, better known as the company behind Sleep Number beds, was launched in the late 1980s by a con man. Literally. In 2014, founder Bob Walker got a 25-year sentence for defrauding investors of $57 million in another one of his companies.

These days, the company stands by its integrity in matters concerning a good night's sleep. In a response filed by its legal team, Select Comfort argues that its sales are on the up-and-up. The pillow wasn't filled with pebbles or mouse corpses. It was a feather-stuffed head rest, one that Azimpour decided was worth $44.99. "Plaintiff nowhere alleges that he did not get what he paid for," they write.

How do you sleep at night, Mr. Azimpour? If the answer is "not so bad," then Select Comfort thinks you should be happy with your pillow and move on.

The man behind the suit remains a mystery. His lawyer in San Diego wasn't inclined to let his client talk, nor would he reveal much about Azimpour.

But a week after his suit against Select Comfort, he filed a near-identical case against Sears, claiming it had also ripped him off.

Sears' offense? Selling Azimpour a pillow for $9.99, marked down from its "original price" of $19.99.

This too was purchased in July, leaving it fair to assume Azimpour was very sleepy that month. But a half-year later, Sears was still advertising it at the same sale price.

The two cases raise the possibility that Azimpour has embarked on a new career of professional pillow plaintiff. But his question stands. When is a sale not a sale?

Even if you've never bought from Select Comfort or Sears, you are a party to this case. We all are.

The American marketplace is rigged, and the deck's stacked against the consumer. Americans love a bargain, but we don't actually recognize one when we see it. That's why Saeid Azimpour's pillow was $44.99, rather than $45.00. More than two-thirds of retail goods are priced with numbers ending in nine, because buyers are convinced they're getting a deal.

I don't know what green onions are worth to me. But I do know if I see a bright red tag that says they're $0.79, down from $1.19, I will come home with a handful of green onions. It's called "priming." You throw out a high number, cut it to a lower number, our brain goes mushy and we reach for our wallets.

There are shelves full of market research books explaining these time-tested principles. Most of us don't read them, but corporations hire teams full of people who are devoted to fooling us into paying for shit we never needed, but couldn't resist.

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Think of the marketplace like this the next time you click into Amazon or stroll through Cub Foods. The people who set those prices aren't trying to help you. They're trying to help themselves, and they do it by preying on people who can't help but take advantage of a good bargain.

It's enough to make anyone lose sleep. 

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