In my time as a catalog marketer, I almost always priced products just below the next dollar increment – a cheap item might be $9.97 rather than $10, while a more expensive item may have been $499, or even $499.99, instead of $500. My strategy was based on a couple of assumptions. First, I thought that there was probably something desirable about offering, say, a “nine-dollar-and-change” price vs. a “ten-dollar” price, i.e., even though the difference was only a few pennies, some customers would perceive the $9.97 price to offer more substantial savings. Second, I observed that big marketers like Sears, who could afford to test any number of pricing options, tended to stick with the “just below the next increment” approach. As it turns out, I was right, but for the wrong reason. New research points us toward the reasons why consumers respond better to a $499 price vs. a $500 price, and it has more to do with the apparent precision of the odd number:

University of Florida marketing professors Chris Janiszewski and Dan Uy suspected that something fundamental might be going on, that some characteristic of the opening bid itself might influence the way the brain thinks about value and shapes bidding behavior. In particular, they wanted to see if the degree of precision of the opening bid might be important to how the brain acts at an auction. Or, to put it in more familiar terms: Are we really fooled when storekeepers price something at $19.95 instead of a round 20 bucks? …

There were three scenarios involving different retail prices: one group of buyers was given a price of $5,000, another was given a price of $4,988, and the third was told $5,012. When all the buyers were asked to estimate the wholesale price, those with the $5,000 price tag in their head guessed much lower than those contemplating the more precise retail prices. That is, they moved farther away from the mental anchor. What is more, those who started with the round number as their mental anchor were much more likely to guess a wholesale price that was also in round numbers. The scientists ran this experiment again and again with different scenarios and always got the same result.

Why would this happen? As Janiszewski and Uy explain in the February issue of Psychological Science, people appear to create mental measuring sticks that run in increments away from any opening bid, and the size of the increments depends on the opening bid. That is, if we see a $20 toaster, we might wonder whether it is worth $19 or $18 or $21; we are thinking in round numbers. But if the starting point is $19.95, the mental measuring stick would look different. We might still think it is wrongly priced, but in our minds we are thinking about nickels and dimes instead of dollars, so a fair comeback might be $19.75 or $19.50. [From Scientific American Mind - Why Things Cost $19.95: What are the psychological "rules" of bartering? by Wray Herbert]

So, it seems, I might have done as well selling a $499 product at $502.50 – they key thing is to avoid the dreaded round number of $500, which implies a lack of precision in pricing.

I still think there might be a slight bias toward the slightly lower number than the slightly higher number when it comes to buyer decision-making, but the researchers didn’t explore that directly.

This work should give marketers the ammunition they need to fend off requests for “simplified” pricing, though. In pre-neuromarketing days, I recall frequent admonitions that, “Nobody is fooled by a price that’s a penny cheaper – let’s keep it simple and just charge an even number.” People may not be “fooled” by the more precise price, but they may impute a higher value to the product itself.

Related: Get More for Your House with an Odd Price

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