How Stores Fool Us By Listing the “Original Price” During Sales

From half off deals, to the music they play in the store, marketers are getting ready to release their arsenal of tricks on you

Dauvit Alexander

Marketers might know more about the human mind than psychologists do, and with Black Friday just a week away, they are getting ready to release their arsenal of tricks. Stores gearing up for buy-one-get-one-free deals, giant red stickers and cheesy Christmas music are a prime place to watch this mental manipulation in action.  Here’s how one of those tricks works.

According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, much of the duping is based on the “original price” that stores post on their sale items. Consumers rely on comparing the difference between the original price and the sales price to figure out how good a sale is. “If a retailer can get a consumer to pay more attention to a $179 original list price, and less attention to a $99 sale price, when assessing the worth of a winter jacket, then the $99 sale price will seem like a better deal,” the researchers write.

Of course, stores know this. In fact, many stores have been accused of raising their prices in the weeks before a sale, so that their original price figure is higher and they can make more money. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission actually has a whole guide to combat deceptive pricing. It includes the following guideline:

One of the most commonly used forms of bargain advertising is to offer a reduction from the advertiser’s own former price for an article. If the former price is the actual, bona fide price at which the article was offered to the public on a regular basis for a reasonably substantial period of time, it provides a legitimate basis for the advertising of a price comparison. Where the former price is genuine, the bargain being advertised is a true one. If, on the other hand, the former price being advertised is not bona fide but fictitious — for example, where an artificial, inflated price was established for the purpose of enabling the subsequent offer of a large reduction — the “bargain” being advertised is a false one; the purchaser is not receiving the unusual value he expects. In such a case, the “reduced” price is, in reality, probably just the seller’s regular price.

So when you’re shopping for the holidays, or on Black Friday, don’t be fooled by the “original price” trick. Not only could those original prices be fake, but they’re using them to dupe you into buying things you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

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