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Are you trying to cut your food bill? Do you regularly shop for advertised special-sale items in grocery stores? If you answer "yes," then you know that advertised specials sometimes can disappear quickly.

If you cannot find an advertised sale item on the grocery shelf, ask for it. If the store has run out, you can ask about a rain check. Unless the ad says quantities are limited, the grocer probably will offer you some form of compensation. The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) "Unavailability Rule" says how, and if, you and other customers should be compensated.

The "Unavailability Rule"

The FTC issued the Retail Food Store Advertising and Marketing Practices Rule in 1971 and amended it in 1989. Known as the Unavailability Rule, it helps protect consumers against food stores that advertise bargains to attract customers but fail to have adequate stock available.

Under the 1989 amended Rule, grocers may offer rain checks to customers if they run out of advertised items. However, rain checks are not required if the ad clearly and adequately says "quantities are limited" or that products are available only at some stores. This gives grocery stores the flexibility to advertise items that they cannot stock in large quantities or at certain outlets. Such items may be seasonal products, like holiday cakes, or perishables, such as fruits and vegetables.

If a store does not disclose the limited availability of an advertised item and runs out of that item, the "Unavailability Rule" excuses the store only when it can show (to the FTC) that advertised items were ordered in adequate time for delivery and in quantities to meet reasonably anticipated demand OR it offers customers one of three alternatives:

* A "rain check" that allows customers to buy the item later at the lower price

* A substitute item of comparable value to the sale item

* Some kind of compensation that is at least equal in value to the advertised item

If a store runs out of advertised specials, ask for a rain check, a substitute, or other compensation. Chances are you will get something because most grocers want to satisfy their customers.

If a Store Does Not Comply

If you know of a grocery store that routinely runs out of "advertised specials," fails to say when "specials" are limited, and does not provide you with a rain check, a substitute item, or some other compensation, write to: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580. Letters from shoppers can help the FTC identify food retailers who may not be complying with the Rule.

Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission in cooperation with the Food Marketing Institute

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