My wife and I had a running joke going for a while with the Kohl’s circular that would come in the Sunday newspaper: every week was “the biggest sale of the year!” This is a common strategy for many retailers and consumers continue to fall for it:
“People don’t have a gut sense of absolute value. It’s just that they’re sensitive to contrast. So if you say I’m getting 40 percent off, I’m interested, no matter what the actual cost is.”
“The whole concept of a sale or a discount has become really perverted,” said Shell, a co-director of Boston University’s Center for Science & Medical Journalism and a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly. “So what is the price? We think of price as a number, something that’s coolly objective, but it’s not. It’s a highly emotional construct. Price is manipulated to attract the consumer.
“If people see a sweater on a table for $50, they don’t buy it. If they see the same sweater was once $100, they will. We’re highly swayed by reference price. … There are some things that are almost perennially on sale, like mattresses and jewelry. We buy almost all our clothing on sale.”
“Retailers are now outfoxing consumers,” said Kit Yarrow, chair of the psychology department at Golden Gate University, where she is a jointly appointed professor of both psychology and marketing. “They’ve figured out how to offer a bargain in a way that the consumer doesn’t even know what they’re buying anymore.”
So how could consumers fight back? Some common strategies:
1. In certain areas, like credit card offers and statements or the calories in restaurant meals, having sellers display more information so that the consumer can theoretically make more rational decisions based on more information. Do all consumers use this information? Does the extra information “wear off” over time, particularly in light of enticing promotions or marketing? You can hear the same argument about health care from some people – if everyone knew, doctors and patients, how much every test or treatment was going to cost, different choices would be made.
2. Use an envelope system (or a debit card) for spending money so that one has a better idea of the total spending limit. This may help overspending but does it help eliminate all “impulse buys” or the deals one purchases?
3. Aren’t consumer education classes in high schools supposed to help talk about finances and such? And do they help much? Do such classes typically talk about how marketing works and different ways to think about deals?
4. There are companies that claim to not offer deals and have “no-haggle prices” or something like that. Think of CarMax or Saturn. Since most other retailers do offer deals, some companies can take an opposite tack.
The conclusion: prices are a social construction and taps into basic human impulses to avoid losses (paying the higher price)