Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How Retail Stores Thwart Price Comparisons

It was a beautiful spring day in Baltimore Saturday. Time to begin the yard and porch cleanup. That required a trip to Home Depot for supplies. Having put all the local hardware stores out of business within a year after arriving, Home Depot is the only choice. The store offers what has become a typical retail shopping experience—disorder in every aisle that appears to intentionally thwart rational buying decisions.

I needed work gloves for outside and reasoned that the garden department would be the place to go. Sure enough there was an entire display rack of gloves. I selected a pair made of canvas with latex dots on the palms and fingers for a better grip. The price of $3.97 seemed substantially higher than I remembered last year. Then I saw I had picked a pair of women’s gloves. In fact the entire rack had nothing but women’s gloves. So gardening is a feminine activity? I never knew that. I must think of a masculine activity that needs gloves.

Off I trekked to the paint department in hopes of finding men’s gloves. Surely painting must be more masculine than gardening. Actually in my house, my wife does most of the painting and gardening. But, I’m trying to imagine how Home Deport marketers might stereotype men and women. Sure enough, the men’s gloves were all in painting. I found the same style and color—canvas with the black latex dots on the palms for the price I remembered—$1.94. In fact, except for the men’s gloves being larger, I could not find any difference in the make or quality compared to the women’s pair for $3.97 in the garden department.

So now I understand why men’s and women’s glove are not sold on the same rack. It would be hard to justify doubling the price for the women’s gloves in a side-by-side comparison. The sex stereotyping is just a clever ploy to avoid putting men’s and women’s gloves together.

Next I needed a new wheel for my wheelbarrow. I had two choices—an air-filled one for $14.99 and a solid never-goes-flat model with no price marked. Not needing air seemed like a good idea. How much more expensive can it be? At the self-serve register it rang up for $37.95. I could buy an entire wheelbarrow for that price. I had to disturb the attendant for the self-serve registers, who looked like he was falling asleep, to have the wheel taken off my total.

I put the items I did buy in my car, but then decided that $14.99 for an air-filled wheel seemed reasonable. I went back inside, found the wheels again in the back of the store, and waited in line at the register. The wheel rang up for $24.00.

“The price is $14.99,” I said.

“That’s not what the computer has.”

“Never mind, I’m not going to buy a wheel.”

Before leaving without a wheel, I went back to recheck the price. This time I read the fine print underneath the large $14.99 lettering. The price referred to some kind of “mat” that was nowhere to be seen. The wheels were on the shelf instead.

When I got home I showed my wife the gloves and asked her how much she usually paid for them.

“Those are about $4 to $5,” she said.

“The women’s gloves in the garden department are about $4. But men’s gloves in painting are only $2.”

“But, the men’s have more fabric.”

“It’s not about the cost of making the gloves; it’s about marketing. The stores know they can get away with charging women more for gloves, so they do.”

My wife rolled her eyes in disgust.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy

No comments: