What you need to know about pricing in retail (geeks only)

I don’t often do this, but this is the entire executive summary of a serious research paper on Pricing. The fact that I am doing this now, hopefully suggests that it is important.

Executive Summary by Ametoglu et al, 201o) on a paper titled:

Pricing Practices: Their Effects On Consumer Behaviour and Welfare.”

(Clicking on the link will download the PDF of the paper.)


The pricing practices discussed in this paper are highly prevalent in today’s society. While classical economic theory suggests that people will act rationally, using cost benefit analysis to make choices, scientific research shows that this is not the case. Humans do not have the capacity to recognise and evaluate all the available information in today’s complex environment, nor the time or motivation. Instead, people use mental short-cuts, or heuristics, to deal with this complexity.

Whilst heuristics can usefully guide our behaviour and allow humans to function in the world, they are not perfect calculations and are subject to occasional and sometimes costly mistakes. Importantly, heuristics leave people exposed to external influences, including pricing cues. The literature on pricing practices suggests that pricing cues provided by retailers can affect consumer behaviour and value perceptions.

Compared to presenting a total price partitioning prices into a base price and surcharge can significantly increase consumers’ positive evaluations and purchase intentions, and can lower search intentions. This is because consumers may fail to fully adjust from the initial (lower) price of the base good and therefore underestimate the total price of the product.

Evidence suggests that people tend to stick with the default option, even when this option has major, long-term consequences.

There is a large body of evidence to show that the presence of an advertised reference price increases consumers’ valuations of a deal and purchase intentions, and can lower their search intentions. Reference prices can have a significant impact even when these are disproportionally large and when consumers are sceptical of their truthfulness. The effects of reference prices are stronger when consumers are not readily able to compare them to an industry price, such as with unbranded, or retailers ‘own brand’ goods, and with less frequently purchased and more expensive items.

The available evidence on the effect of offering a “free” product in a bundle (e.g. 'buy one get one free') is mixed. While some studies show that this practice can increase consumer valuations and demand, others show that a freebie designation does not increase consumers’ perceptions or willingness to pay for the bundle.

One large scale study suggests that the bait-and-switch practice may have a substantial (negative) impact on consumers. Moreover, consumers are drawn in to promotions and where the item is out of stock, they predominantly switch to another item within the same store, due to lowered search intentions.

Compared to a single unit price promotion, a multiple unit price promotion (volume offer) increases the quantity consumers buy, even when the discount does not differ and consumers do not receive an incremental saving. This effect can be substantial. Importantly, a bundle discount can increase quantity decisions relative to per unit discounts even when consumers may not purchase enough of the products to qualify for the bundled discount.

The effects of bundles (pure or mixed) are partially explained by confusion in that consumers generally believe that bundles involve discounts (i.e. infer savings) even when they do not and no such information is presented. Bundling can also influence choices because it decreases cognitive effort.

Evidence specifically looking at the effect of time-limited advertising is inconclusive. However, it seems that under conditions in which time-limited offers do trigger feelings of scarcity, consumers are more likely to overestimate the product quality, or the value of the deal, lower their intentions to search, and have higher intentions to buy. Shorter time limits may augment this effect (though very short time limits may have an opposite effect).

Research suggests that pricing practices may be less effective in conditions where consumers are readily able to make memory based price comparisons, or have quick and easy access to price information, such as in online environments. On the other hand, pricing cues put forward by sellers both online and offline may still influence consumer behaviour, indicating that learning and/or easy access to information does not eliminate the impact of these practices.