Does a shop have to honour the price on the tag? - Martyn James

When is a bargain not a bargain? I was reading recently about a man in Mexico who spotted that a pair of diamond and gold Cartier earrings had mistakenly been listed on a website as $13 instead of $13,000. When Rogelio Villarreal placed the order, it was processed – but Cartier tried to get out of the deal. After a month-long battle, Rogelio won and got the bargain of a lifetime (he gave the earrings to his mum, bless him).

That victory came as a result of Mexico’s consumer protection laws. But it couldn’t happen here… could it?

Every year I hear from loads of readers who have been on the verge of getting a great deal due to a mispriced item, only for the retailer to spot the error at the checkout and refuse to honour it.

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Many people think that the price tag represents the final word on what an item should cost and the shop must sell you the goods at that price. Sadly that isn’t the case.

​You may think you are about to buy a bargain, but the price tag does not represent the final word on what an item should cost (Picture: John Devlin)​You may think you are about to buy a bargain, but the price tag does not represent the final word on what an item should cost (Picture: John Devlin)
​You may think you are about to buy a bargain, but the price tag does not represent the final word on what an item should cost (Picture: John Devlin)

According to leading legal expert, Gary Rycroft, a price tag is what lawyers call ‘an invitation to treat’ which is basically an offer to sell at that price. The retailer is inviting you, the buyer, to make an offer. However, this means you cannot insist on buying the item at the advertised price. If the seller has put an unusually low price on it – deliberately or by mistake – they can (and do) refuse to do the deal.

A legally binding contract is only created when the seller accepts an offer made by the buyer. And this is where things – get interesting… because both parties have committed.

If a mispriced item – like those Cartier earrings – has been processed and confirmed then the contract has been made. The retailer sold an item at a specific price and you agreed to pay for it at that price.

Where a contact exists the business usually has to honour it if you’ve bought or received the goods though there may be exceptions to this in their T&Cs.

This can seem rather complicated from a legal standpoint – but in most cases the retailer’s website will confirm the point the order has been accepted.

If that’s the case, they should honour the price you paid. They can’t just add in a load of contract terms that are unfair or ambiguous either.

Sometimes businesses will try to get around this by arguing they’ve made ‘an honest mistake’. But if you double down and threaten to ‘enforce the contract’ there’s a good chance you could win if it goes to court.

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On occasion, like with those pricey earrings, the retailer might realise their mistake and contact you after the contract has been agreed to say they want the rest of the money or the goods back. They might also threaten not to deliver.

In situations like this, you should not have to pay back the difference in prices unless they can establish that you knew the price was wrong at the time – which is tricky for them to prove.

The retailer should also not attempt to debit your account for the extra money, as you have not authorised any additional payments. If this happens, complain to your card provider and tell them this is an ‘unauthorised transaction’.

If you do get turned down for a mispriced item at the checkout, you might want to have a go at haggling, but you’ll have more luck with the head office of the retailer than the poor person stuck on the till all day. If you decide to go down this avenue, I’d photo the mispriced item so you can prove that the labelling was incorrectly applied.

One final warning. If word gets around that a website has mispriced certain goods and loads of people rush to buy them, then you are all aware that the business has made an error and chances are the retailer won’t have to cough up.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist. Visit

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