Can a store expire a coupon before it actually expires?
January 22, 2007 6:39 PM   Subscribe

ConsumerFilter: Does a retailer in California really have a right to null and void a published coupon before it's expiration date?

Circuit City published a coupon earlier this month offering $40 off to any in-store purchase $199 or more by March 31st. I printed out a copy. The last line on the terms of the coupon reads "Circuit City reserves the right to end this promotion at any time." Today a friend informed me that Circuit City has null and voided the coupon offer.
Sure enough I went back to the coupon page and in the place of the coupon is the explaination:

"Because an error in production regarding limitations occurred, we had no choice but to expire this offer. We apologize for any convenience or disappointment this may cause you, our valued customer."

Though I'm sure they are genuinely sorry for my convenience, isn't this another form of bait and switch (like a misprint)? Do coupons count as printed advertisements? If it's really just a 'promotion' like Circuit City says, couldn't a car dealer or Brooklyn camera shop make a sale price a coupon 'promotion' and then cancel that promotion when someone comes in to buy at that price to make it all legit for them?

I scanned the text of California's bait and switch law (where it covers things like misprinted prices) and there's nothing that talks about coupons. I'm not planning to take anyone to small claims court, I'm just wondering what the legal technicalities of all this is about.

I live in California if you haven't figured it out by now, but I am also interested in how this can be handled in other states.
posted by sammich to Shopping (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Taking a wild stab at it:

If you look at the coupon as a bi-lateral contract, that is, if you spend X and we'll deduct Y; then sure they can. They've simply revoked the offer (the coupon) before you accepted it.

Then again, there may be another set of laws that deal with coupons. It almost seems like something that the UCC would cover.
posted by roomwithaview at 7:10 PM on January 22, 2007

Response by poster: what's the UCC?
posted by sammich at 7:26 PM on January 22, 2007

"Circuit City reserves the right to end this promotion at any time."
Job done.
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:27 PM on January 22, 2007

I don't know California law, but a misprint is not bait and switch. Bait and switch is intentional fraud. A misprint, or a production error, is an unintentional error.

Were there a law forcing companies to make good their misprints and fulfillment problems and so on, it still wouldn't be bait and switch.

Bait and switch is a scheme, not an outcome.
posted by mendel at 7:28 PM on January 22, 2007

Yes, and from my experience as a former marketer for a So Cal retailer, they don't usually do it on purpose. However, the shadiness is in the predictions. "We predict that sales will reach X therefore offsetting the cost of the promotion."

When the prediction fails so does your coupon/promotion. Again, sorry for the inconvenience.

I hope others share some more insight, because it's a very interesting question.
posted by snsranch at 7:29 PM on January 22, 2007

Ah yes the infamous $40 off 200. I read that it was misprinted, and it was originally supposed to exclude game hardware.

It's been wildly abused (mainly to buy the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive). I'll even admit that I used the coupon three times.

There is another $40 off 200 coupon that comes in a mailer after you file a change of address with the USPS. People have been using printed copies of them with success, if you want to try printing your own.
posted by mphuie at 7:48 PM on January 22, 2007

News of this coupon hit the web and I think too many people used it in too short a time span. I saw this coupon in reference in buying Nintendo Wii's this past Sunday.
posted by Cog at 7:50 PM on January 22, 2007

By UCC I meant the Uniform Commercial Code.
posted by roomwithaview at 7:55 PM on January 22, 2007

Job done.

Not true. If this was simply a contract between two parties, then maybe. But there are additional laws that govern how companies are allowed to advertise, so your simplistic "they said they could in the fine print so it's legal" is pretty naive. As others have said, it comes down to whether it was done in good faith or bad faith.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:59 PM on January 22, 2007

For what it's worth: the coupons were published on Digg and a few other deals sites, which likely helped to exceed CCity's initial expectations. More discussion here.
posted by Hankins at 8:38 PM on January 22, 2007

Almost every coupon I've seen has somewhere on it some fine print saying something to th effect that the offer is only good while supplies last or that the issuer can revoke it at any time.
posted by frieze at 8:38 PM on January 22, 2007

I know that California has rules that saying a gift card or gift certificate cannot expire, but I've never heard that applied to coupons. I figured the logic was that if you've paid for something, they have to honor it, which wouldn't apply to coupons they were giving out for free (and actually, on that page, it looks like even gift cards can expire if they're distributed without charge).
posted by occhiblu at 9:13 PM on January 22, 2007

There's a reason they state clearly that they can void the offer at any time. That reason is so they can void the offer at any time.

Now, what you can do is if you have a printed copy of this coupon, take it to the store. Go ahead and prepare to use it. They might decide to take it since you already have it. If not, just ask them nicely to cancel the transaction. They might decide to change their mind, or not. If not, no big deal, just follow through on the cancellation, no other complaints, and call it a wash.

It's their right to cancel the coupon, but seeing lost business because of it really discourages these cancellations. That's all you can really do in the end, let them know you disapprove and your dollars go elsewhere. Still, be polite. Nobody in the store likely had any say about the coupons, and even if they did, they weren't unfair about it.
posted by Saydur at 12:24 AM on January 23, 2007

" 'Circuit City reserves the right to end this promotion at any time.' Job done."
"There's a reason they state clearly that they can void the offer at any time. That reason is so they can void the offer at any time."

I'm not a lawyer by any means, so I don't quite now whether the language on the coupon is valid or not, but I did want to point out the faulty logic of comments like the ones above.

Many times company lawyers will put clauses on contracts, web pages, receipts, warranties, etc. The fact that the clause is printed there doesn't necessarily mean its enforceable. It simply means that the company (or its lawyers) hope its enforceable, but you won't know if it really can be enforced until someone actually tests it out at a court. There have been numerous contract clauses that have been thrown out by courts because they were deemed unenforceable due to a variety of reasons (a lot of arbitration clauses have been victims of such court cases).

So, in summary, the fact that they printed it on the coupon doesn't automatically mean that they have the legal right to act on it.
posted by tuxster at 10:09 AM on January 23, 2007

...I don't quite know... (bah!)
posted by tuxster at 10:10 AM on January 23, 2007

There's a reason they state clearly that they can void the offer at any time. That reason is so they can void the offer at any time.

tuxster makes a good point. Unenforceable contracts and clauses are common all over the business world.

The most obvious example in business relations is the Non-Compete Agreemeent. These are almost never upheld, as the right to work pretty much always trumps the paper you signed. Your employer knows this.

When said clauses are put out towards consumers, it is often meant to create enough uncertainty that you won't want to bother trying to fight it, or that the fight will not be quite as cheap and easy if you do.

I don't know if this is the case for this coupon or not, but if you believe that every word of every contract is binding, you're getting taken for a ride.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 2:45 PM on January 23, 2007

Yes, this can happen, especially with an internet printable coupon.

It happens all the time. Starbucks recently did the exact same thing because the coupon got out of hand.

Also, i just asked our chief counsel - yes, this happens, and no, it's not illegal.
posted by drstein at 12:51 PM on January 24, 2007

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