Mind Your Pricing Cues

Eric Anderson*, Duncan Simester

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


For most of the items they buy, consumers don't have an accurate sense of what the price should be. Ask them to guess how much a four-pack of 35-mm film costs, and you'll get a variety of wrong answers: Most people will underestimate; many will only shrug. Research shows that consumers' knowledge of the market is so far from perfect that it hardly deserves to be called knowledge at all. Yet people happily buy film and other products every day. Is this because they don't care what kind of deal they're getting? No. Remarkably, its because they rely on retailers to tell them whether they're getting a good price. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, retailers send signals to customers, telling them whether a given price is relatively high or low. In this article, the authors review several common pricing cues retailers use -"sale" signs, prices that end in 9, signpost items, and price-matching guarantees. They also offer some surprising facts about how-and how well-those cues work. For instance, the authors' tests with several mail-order catalogs reveal that including the word "sale" beside a price can increase demand by more than 50%. The practice of using a 9 at the end of a price to denote a bargain is so common, you'd think customers would be numb to it. Yet in a study the authors did involving a women's clothing catalog, they increased demand by a third just by changing the price of a dress from $34 to $39. Pricing cues are powerful tools for guiding customers' purchasing decisions, but they must be applied judiciously. Used inappropriately, the cues may breach customers' trust, reduce brand equity, and give rise to lawsuits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)96-103+134
JournalHarvard business review
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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