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Before buying something on sale, know the flaw

I promised myself I would never write a post about an airline travel experience because lots of journalists do it and it’s mostly really annoying [3]. But promises are made to be broken, so here it goes.

When booking a last-minute flight recently, I went to pick out my seat and saw a whole row of plum front-of-the-plane seats still available. It almost felt like finding something on sale; instead of having to pay the “price” of booking early, or shell out extra money for an exit-row seat, I was getting the perks of being one of the first to exit the plane for free. Huzzah!

But after takeoff, I realized I’d picked a lemon. The guy in front of me reclined, but when I went to do the same to try and keep my knees from getting crushed, my seat wouldn’t go back. Turns out, FAA regulations dictate that seats in the row ahead of an exit row don’t recline. I didn’t know that, but the market — the group of individuals going online to select their seats — did.

That brought home an important point for me — if something’s on sale, it’s either because the manufacturer made more than the market wanted (not the case with my almost-sold out flight), or because the product has some kind of substantial flaw that makes a bunch of people unwilling to buy it at the original asking price.

If it’s the latter, that doesn’t necessarily mean the item is useless or bad. There could be any number of reasons why other people don’t want that enticing sale item, and maybe those are reasons you can live with: maybe the product in question is an ugly color, or maybe it’s just not as cool as the current version which just came out last week.

But sometimes it’s reflective of serious flaws that others have noticed and caused them to pass. In the case of the plane seat, I let my guard down because I assumed one was as good as another, and I just happened to be the beneficiary of good luck. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing that. A 2011 poll by ShopSmart Magazine found that nearly two-thirds of female shoppers admitted they had regretted at least one sale purchase, and I’d bet men aren’t far behind.

Moral of the story: Know the flaw. If a product is on sale, whether it’s a plane seat, a smartphone or a house, you’d better know why before you buy. If you can live with that flaw, fine, but don’t be like me and end up with sore knees and a crick in your neck because you thought you were getting a good deal.

What do you think? Have you ever bought something on sale only to find out it was a piece of junk? Ever narrowly avoided doing so?