Deal or no deal: scratch-and-dent and open-box items

A really bad gadget
Who really wants a fan, speaker, and microphone all in one product? (Photo courtesy of

Christmas has passed once again, and many of us will be heading back to stores to try to return gifts that just aren’t quite what we were hoping for. (Although the gift you’re returning probably isn’t as bad as this one.)

A lot of those items, if opened, can’t be put back on the shelf with their unopened brethren, so they become open-box items. Open-box items (and those with similar labels like “scratch-and-dent”) are taking up shelf space the retailer wants to use for newer products. So you can usually get a significant discount, and perhaps even the chance to haggle.

You’ll see more and more open-box items as you walk around stores over the next few weeks. Clearance, open-box, scratch-and-dent, floor model…what do these terms mean, and how do you know if you’re really getting a deal? Read on.

What’s in a name?

As Shakespeare once said, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, it may be true for roses, but not necessarily for discounts.

The meanings of these terms often vary from retailer to retailer. So it’s best to clarify with a sales associate exactly why a particular item you’re looking at is being discounted. There are four main categories, regardless of what each store calls them. I’ll detail each below, along with what “gotchas” to look out for in each category.


The most straightforward (usually). Clearance is a pretty universal term for items that are no longer being shipped to the stores by the manufacturer (usually because a newer model has been released). The product has never been opened, but just isn’t the latest and greatest model. This is ideal for products that you don’t replace often or without frequent innovation (laptop case, headphones, washing machine, etc.).

For bigger purchases, I’d recommend checking online to see when that particular model was released. Clearance items are usually at least a year old. I’d be more cautious buying clearance items in categories that change a lot from year to year, such as computers or cell phones. Clearance items have the same warranty and return window as non-clearance items, so this can be a great deal if you’re willing to get a year-old product (but new to you!)

Floor model

Floor model items often aren’t labelled as such; sometimes they’re simply called “Open-box”. Sometimes you can tell an item is a floor model because it has no box and has the manufacturer’s stickers on it pointing out features. I would always ask to make sure that is indeed the reason for the discount.

This is basically a product that has been used as a display in the store. Once the store needs that display space for a newer model, the display is often sold. This means the product has usually been on clearance, and has now sold out in the store.

So my advice on floor models is very similar to my advice on clearance items, but with a couple additional caveats.

First, consider the way the floor model has or hasn’t been used while on display in the store. For example, items like speakers or TVs are often on at all times the store is open. If the TV has been on display for a year, that’s probably close to 4,000 hours the TV has already been used by the time you take it home. That’s probably more than you’ll use it during your first three years with it!

Our Electrolux vacuum
This was a great deal for us at 60% off. (Photo courtesy of Electrolux)

On the other hand, my wife and I bought a floor model vacuum recently for 60% off the original price. After looking in the vacuum aisle, I realized there were no outlets nearby, so I doubted this particular Electrolux vacuum had been operated much, if ever. In addition, I confirmed with a sales associate that their floor models had the same return policy as new items. We bought it, and have been extremely satisfied so far.

Second, make sure that you check as I did to make sure of the return policy. Since the product has been on display for months, there may be no box and you may find other parts missing or not working when you get it home to use it. For example, floor model TVs sometimes have missing remotes.


There can be some overlap between open-box items and scratch-and-dent items (the category below). When I refer to open box items, I’m thinking specifically of items that have been opened and returned, but have no visible damage.

Products are returned for all kinds of reasons, and most of the times sales associates have no way to tell you what the reason was for the return. This time of year, many products are returned not because of any defect, but because they simply didn’t quite meet the needs of the gift receiver. Maybe the Bluetooth speaker wasn’t loud enough, or was blue instead of red. You get the idea.

Sometimes the product is returned because the quality isn’t satisfactory or there’s a defect of some sort. Instead of contacting the manufacturer to solve the problem, it’s easier to simply return it to the store. And so these problems can pop up in open-box products on the shelf.

I recommend two things. First, check the ratings and reviews on the product. This will usually tell you if the product is usually of quality construction, or if there are common flaws people are noticing after purchase. Second, check on the store’s return policy. (Sound familiar yet?) If there’s a problem you didn’t notice in the store, you’ll want to be able to return it.


By scratch-and-dent, I refer to items that are discounted because of physical damage or cosmetic defects. This damage or defect shouldn’t affect the function of the product, otherwise it shouldn’t be for sale and you shouldn’t buy it. Most often, this appears in the form of a scratched refrigerator that was damaged in transportation, or some similar scenario.

First, talk to an employee to verify exactly what damage is causing the discount, and make sure it is documented on paper. If you have to return the item for some reason, you’ll need to be able to show that every bit of the damage was there when you bought it.

Second, check to make sure that the damage isn’t inhibiting any normal functions of the product.

If you’re satisfied with both of those checks, then the only question is whether you are willing to live with seeing the cosmetic damage on a regular basis. If the damage is to a side of the product that won’t be visible, all the better! If you’re willing to accept cosmetic damage, you can get fantastic discounts on great products this way.

Final thoughts

If you haven’t yet picked up on this theme yet, double-check with a sales associate or manager to make sure of the return policy before you plunk down your money.

For obvious reasons, all of these items (except clearance) won’t have the same inventory from store to store. Some stores (like Best Buy) have begun allowing you to search their open-box inventory online, specifying by stores near you.

Do you have a topic idea for me? Let me know below!


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