How Prices Ending in 9 Affect Your Buying Habits (Or Not.)

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 most of them.

That hasn’t stopped Dad from sharing his repertoire over and over again anyway. What I really love about my dad is that even if he is repeating a particular joke that I’ve heard 76 times before, he tells it with all the verve of somebody reciting it for the very first time.

For example, I’ve probably played two hundred rounds of golf with Dad. Not coincidentally, that just so happens to be 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 Psychology Today story noted that according to the authors of the study, “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.)”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Okay, Len, what the heck is a “fricative”?

Beats me.

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

Personally, I think that is a complete crock.

I don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that, when it comes to closing a deal, consumers are influenced much more by sight than sound.

Face it: Merchants price items at $3.99 instead of $4.00 simply because most people, naturally, tend to focus on the more significant numerals. That is, the ones on the left, closest to the dollar sign.

The most obvious example is the way gasoline is priced. Almost every gas station advertises their prices to the nearest nine-tenths of a cent. Why? Because $4.999 per gallon looks a whole heck of a lot cheaper than $5.00 per gallon. Sound has 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

26 comments to How Prices Ending in 9 Affect Your Buying Habits (Or Not.)

  • Ted

    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.

  • 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!

  • Libby

    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???

  • 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!

    • Len Penzo

      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.

  • I wonder how you decide “sound” matters in priceing? How do the social scientists test that one? Wonder how big the NIH grant was?

  • 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.

    • Len Penzo

      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.

  • Angie

    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! ;)

    • Len Penzo

      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!”)

  • Len, I hate that as smart as I am (: I still fall prey to the marketers!! Your dad sounds great!!!

  • 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).

  • DC

    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.

    • Len Penzo

      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!

  • I like the sound of fricative. Sounds tasty, like a fricassee…

  • Good one Len! Hey, sorry I forgot to add you in my link roundup this week; just added this one in!

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