Do Prices Ending in 9 Really Affect Our Buying Habits?

My dad is a real comedian. The guy seems to have a story or a joke for every occasion and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard ‘em all. That hasn’t stopped Dad from sharing his repertoire over and over again anyway.

What I really love about Dad is that even when he is repeating a particular joke that I’ve heard 76 times before, he tells it with all the verve and gusto of somebody reciting it for the very first time.

For example, I’ve probably played 500 rounds of golf with him over the years. And it’s no coincidence that it’s also the same number of times I’ve heard him repeat the joke about the duffer who was so cheap that, instead of yelling “fore” after each errant golf drive, he insisted on shouting $3.99! I know.

Dad usually tells that one right after a member of our foursome finishes slicing a long shot into an opposing fairway. Heh.

Here’s something else that’s kind of funny. I read this article in Psychology Today that highlighted research suggesting the reason a lot of establishments price their products with a 9 at the end is because it “sounds” cheap. The story explained that:

Sounds pronounced with the front of the mouth (long a, e, and i; fricatives like f, s, and z) trigger associations with smallness. (Think of words like tiny and wee.) The vowels pronounced at the back of the mouth, like the oo in foot or goose, are linked to largeness. (Think huge or crowds oohing and ahhing something really big.)

Of course, after reading that, I know exactly what you’re thinking: What the heck is a fricative?

Beats me.

The important thing to note is that, ironically, if the theory is correct, prices ending in 9 subconsciously signal to buyers that they’re looking at a great deal, while prices ending in 0, 1, and 2 are perceived to be more expensive.

I think that’s a complete crock. I don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to know that, when it comes to closing a deal, consumers are influenced much more by sight than sound.

Let’s face facts: Merchants price items at $3.99 instead of $4.00 simply because most people, naturally, tend to focus on the most significant numeral. That is, the ones farthest to the left, closest to the dollar sign.

Take gasoline prices, for example: Almost every gas station advertises their prices to the nearest nine-tenths of a cent. Why? Because $4.999 per gallon looks a whole lot cheaper than $5.00 per gallon. Sound has absolutely nothing to do with it.

That’s my story anyway — and I’m sticking to it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call Dad. I’m dying to know if he has any old jokes about fricatives he might want to share.

Photo Credit: Violette79

(This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on November 2, 2011)

Comments

  1. 1

    Ted says

    The gas example works in another way too. If the price is $3.759 everybody says gas is $3.75. But it’s really $3.76. I catch myself doing it with products that for example are $19.95. I’ll tell everyone that I got the product for $19 even though I really paid closer to $20.

  2. 3

    says

    I think you make a better point that the linguists that analyzed the sounds of numerals. ;) The whole dollar amount makes people think it’s “cheaper” when it’s really just one penny less than the next whole dollar amount. Pennies count, damn it!

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Maybe I should have been a Psych major in college instead of an engineer. ;-)

      And yes, those pennies add up, Jen!

  3. 5

    Libby says

    I totally agree with you, Len. I can’t tell you how many times my nieces and nephews have begged for something saying “but it’s only a dollar” when the price is actually $1.99, essentially two dollars. And gas pricing drives me up the wall too. Why do we even have the 9/10 anymore? I mean, REALLY???

  4. 7

    says

    Yeah, the effect is definitely stronger at the big anchor numbers -$100s, $1,000s. Who wants to buy a $1,000.00 TV? There’s a $999.99 one next to it!

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      And it even has MORE effect with the REALLY big purchases like new cars and homes.

      When we bought our new home in 1997, the builder was having trouble selling it so they knocked the price down from $208,000 to $199,000. I’m certain that “9 psychology” saved me at least an extra $1000 off the price of my house — if not two or three.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      It is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, Dr. Dean. It completely flies in the face of facts or even common sense!

  5. 11

    says

    My brother built a business of selling sofas, priced always ending in 9. He owned multi stores and was successful in that business. The psychology of numbers, colors etc is a whole subject in itself.

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      I remember being told that the practice of ending prices in 9 was started by merchants back in the late 1800s in order to keep cashiers from skimming money whenever a purchase was made. The thought was that it forced the employees to open the cash register drawers for every transaction, thereby making potential “inside” thievery a lot tougher.

  6. 13

    Angie says

    Ugh. I have a friend who always tells me about these great deals she gets, “it was only a dollar!!”, then come to find out it was A DOLLAR AND NINETY-NINE CENTS… plus tax no less!!

    And I tell anyone who will listen that I should get a penny off for every 10 gallons of gas that I buy, given that it’s advertised with that funny 9/10 of a cent on the end. It’s the principle! ;)

    • 14

      Len Penzo says

      Great point, Angie. Let’s see, if we buy 10 gallons of gasoline per week, that means the oil companies are pilfering an extra 52 cents from our wallets every year. (And like Little House said above, “every penny counts!”)

      • 15

        Kile says

        Actually, this would only hold if you were purchasing 1 gallon at a time; 1 gallon at $2.999 actually costs you $3.00. Do that 10 times and it will cost you $30.00.

        However, if you buy 10 gallons all at the same time, the $2.999 X 10 = $29.99.

        I suppose the trick then, is to only purchase gas in exact increments of 10 gallons at a time to ensure that we’re truly getting exactly what we’re paying for.

  7. 18

    says

    I had helped a friend buy something. And when I handed him the item, he asked me how much it was. So I told him it was $9.50, but he gave me $9.

    Maybe this situation is how the “sound” matters, but I still don’t buy what the psychology study says. Instead, I agree with you that many people focus on the more significant digit (or some may just focus on the first part of what they hear or see).

  8. 19

    DC says

    I whole heartily agree with you on this one – the psychology is on the leading significant digit, not some friggin’ fricative.

    9/10 cent on gasoline make some marketing sense back in the days when gas 35.9 cents a gallon. But today that tactic is way past its sell-by date.

    I used some number psychology when I bought my current house. The owner was asking for something like $205,000 (this was 10 years ago in the Atlanta suburbs). I “translated” that to mean they probably wanted a good $200,000 for the house. I initially thought to counter-offer $197,000, but decided the leading “2” was probably a psychological barrier. So instead I offered $200,000 plus the owner to cover the first $3000 of my closing costs. That worked, and the contract was signed.

    • 20

      Len Penzo says

      Hey, that is some really smart thinking on the house negotiation, DC. Thanks for pointing out to the readers how “9” psychology also works in reverse!

  9. 24

    Jerry Parks says

    The $1.99 prices simply do not make sense in a no-sales tax state like Oregon. Just make it a whole number and get on with it.

  10. 25

    Jeff from Washington says

    Fricative: Characterized by frictional rustling of the breath as it is emitted;-said of certain consonants (f,v,s,z, etc.) Now there is a $.99 word for you! Still enjoy your posts after all these years.

  11. 27

    David C. says

    Thirty years ago, I was working my way through school at a tire/hardware/applicance store. I would have people call and ask how much something was. If the price was $1.99, being too practical and logical, I would say $2.00, because that’s how I saw things. The general manager heard me doing this and the next thing, I’m staring down the business end of a hissy fit. I received a nice lecture about how the price ending in 9 made people think they were getting it much cheaper than they actually were, blah, blah and so forth.

    They really didn’t like, when I would mention that the Wal Mart fifty feet away from us, had the same thing and their price ended in 5!

    Thus ended my promising career in retail sales.

  12. 29

    says

    I’m happy with this, especially when it comes to 99p vs £1. In this scenario, I’m saving 1% on everything I buy, which is about the same as interest rates in savings accounts.

    Whether its a psychological trick or not (by sight or by sound), I say long live the 1% saving!! :)

  13. 30

    says

    Some people don’t even pay attention to the price at all. They just buy what they want and move on. I had that disturbing realization when I went shopping with some family members a couple of weeks ago.

    • 31

      Len Penzo says

      I know a few people like that too — and the sad thing is, they aren’t millionaires who can afford to not pay attention.

  14. 34

    says

    I’m with you on the first number (or two) being the most important. I am a landlord and the last time my place was for rent I couldn’t get any interest when I listed it for $1,200/ month. However, at $1,175 I got more emails than I could handle.

  15. 36

    says

    I know that I always hear people say “it’s only $3 or $4, etc…” when it’s actually $3.99 or $4.99. I also know that Walmart did studies on this and that’s why they decided to offer products for X.98 instead of X.99. Of course now I think it’s lower, like X.96 or something. Oh, psychology. It’s really interesting though.

    BTW, love the joke. lol. Yes, I’m corny.

  16. 37

    says

    I used to ponder on that idea. Why does number 9 have a huge effect on us buyers especially when things are on sale? There are lots of “what if” and “instead of”. That .01 to make .99 a 1 can really make the difference. For instance, instead of paying $3, you only pay $2.99. I believe people are more focus on the whole number than the decimal (3 vs. 2). See the difference.

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