What Is a Rain Check?

A rain check is a promise or commitment from a seller to a buyer that an item currently out of stock can be purchased at a later date for the current day's sale price. This promise comes in written form, usually as a chit that consumers can present when they return to the retailer to purchase the item in question.

The term originated in baseball in the 1800s. Spectators who attended games that were postponed or canceled because of weather could receive a check to attend a future game at no extra charge.

Understanding Rain Checks

Rain checks are most commonly issued by retail stores. When advertising a sale, a retailer is required to honor the discounted price of a product even when supplies run out. Customers can request a rain check—usually in the form of a paper voucher—if they are unable to purchase the advertised item during the sale period. Most rain checks are valid for 30, 60, or 90 days, depending on the store.

The rain check ensures customers have the option to return and buy the item at the discounted price when its inventory is eventually restocked. Retailers are not obliged to issue rain checks if the advertisement clearly states supplies are limited or only available at select locations.

Rain checks also give retailers a competitive advantage. By issuing a rain check, a retailer can keep their customers from going to the competition, and ensure they will return.

Rain checks are also used in other sectors including the sports and entertainment industries.

Rain checks can help retailers keep their customers from going to the competition.

Example of a Rain Check

Let's say The Big Store normally sells Yummy Wheat Cereal for $4 per box each week. Management decides to put the cereal on sale at $2.50 per box for next week. The store advertises the sale in its flyers and online. If you go to the store and find Yummy Wheat Cereal has sold out, you can ask the store for a rain check. The store will issue you a coupon with the $2,50 sale price, the quantity you can purchase, and the expiry date. When you return to the store, you simply present the cashier with the coupon at the checkout.

One thing to note: Vendors generally don't issue rain checks for special promotions. So a special marked "Buy One, Get One Free" may not be applicable for a rain check after the stock is depleted.

Key Takeaways

  • A rain check is a promise a seller makes to a buyer that an out of stock item can be purchased at a later date for the current day's sale price.
  • Retailers are not obliged to issue rain checks if they clearly state supplies are limited or only available at select locations.
  • The FTC's Unavailability Rule entitles consumers to receive rain checks, substitute items of equal value, or alternative compensation equal to the advertised items or discount.

Rain Checks and the Unavailability Rule

After 1989, rain checks became standard practice in grocery stores because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established the unavailability rule. This federal law entitles consumers to receive rain checks, substitute items of equal value, or alternative compensation equal to the advertised items or discount.

The unavailability rule protects consumers from false or deceptive advertising by requiring grocery retailers to stock enough supplies to reasonably satisfy the anticipated demand for a sale. The FTC established this law to prevent bait-and-switch sales—the practice of advertising bargain prices to attract heavy traffic while understocking sale items to encourage customers to buy more expensive products. Running out of inventory is not illegal, but a retailer may violate the law by repeatedly understocking sale items without informing the public that quantities are limited.

Exceptions to Rain Check Laws

Individual states have their own consumer protection acts, which may expand the liability of retailers or subject a wider range of products to rain check laws. Some states limit the amount of time consumers have to redeem the rain check once they are notified of a restocked item.

Retailers can limit supplies, for which rain checks are not granted. But in order to do so and be fair to consumers, the store must clearly state that there is a limited supply of stock and that it will not issue rain checks.

Rain check laws typically do not apply to products that are not delivered at the time of purchase, such as appliances and furniture. Large high-ticket items are regularly stocked in small quantities and may require substantial handling costs for retailers to keep more inventory at the store. Close-outs, clearances, seasonal sales, and store-wide discounts are commonly excluded, as the retailer is often selling off inventory that cannot be restocked within a reasonable time frame.

What happens if you don't get a rain check?

If the store you go to does not give you a rain check, you should first check to see if the sale item has limitations. If the store states "No Rain Checks" or that the quantity is limited, it isn't obligated to issues you a rain check. If there is no stipulation and you can't get a rain check, you can file a complaint with the FTC—especially in cases where the retailer keeps running out of stock on advertised specials. You can also complain to your state consumer protection agency or the state attorney general.