What is 'Bait and Switch'

Bait and switch is a sales tactic that lures customers with low prices on unavailable items with the aim of upselling them on a similar, pricier item. It is considered a form of retail sales fraud, though it takes place in other contexts. While many countries have laws against using bait and switch tactics not all occurences constitute fraud.

Breaking Down 'Bait and Switch'

The "bait" in a bait and switch can be an advertised physical product or service that has a notably attractive price or terms. It can also take the form of a teaser interest rate, in the case a mortgage, loan or investment product. Once a customer comes into the store or office to inquire about the advertised price or rate, the advertiser will attempt to sell the customer a more expensive product, which constitutes the "switch."

Bait and switch tactics, as a form of false advertising, may be subject to lawsuits in many countries, including the United States, England and Canada. However, no matter how aggressive the advertiser is in attempting to upsell a potential customer to a more expensive product, if they are able to sell the advertised teaser product there is no course of action for the consumer.

It is perfectly legal in the United States for a business to advertise a teaser item that is stocked in a limited amount (a loss leader, for example) as long as they also advertise that a limited number are available and offer a rain check if the item sells out.

Bait and Switch Examples

While relatively uncommon, the bait and switch tactic has gained notoriety in the mortgage market as a potentially unscrupulous marketing tactic meant to drive business. In a mortgage bait and switch an agent or company will post exceedingly low mortgage rates, knowing full well that the vast majority of applicants will be unable to qualify for these teaser rates. Once customers begin to come into the office to inquire about the low rate, the agent will proceed to offer them the higher rates they are more likely to qualify for, thus earning a greater commission. A similar strategy is seen in auto purchase financing, in which buyers are lured by the possibility of a car loan with a rate as low as 0.0%. In reality, very few people (if any) will qualify for such a rate.

Bait and switch-like tactics are common in other endeavors, as well.

  • In real estate, some unscrupulous brokers may advertise a great property at a too-good-to-be-true price to attract potential buyers. Once they are on board, the property in question is no longer available.
  • In restaurants and supermarkets, it has been found that about a third of fish sold as one species (and priced that way) is actually another, cheaper, type of fish.
  • Hotels offer low teaser rates to attract guests who are later hit with hidden resort fees or other unexpected, minimally disclosed fees.
  • Headhunters may post attractive yet fake jobs in an attempt to collect resumes.
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