It would be great if some of the everyday annoyances consumers encounter while shopping, traveling, and going to the movies would simply disappear. Unfortunately, in all likelihood that just ain’t gonna happen. But it may help a little to at least understand exactly why the powers that be seem to intentionally be inconveniencing, confusing, and ripping us off at every turn. Here are the reasons behind 7 common shopper complaints.
Why is the milk in the back of the supermarket?
It’s fairly common knowledge that grocery stores place milk, eggs, and other staples far away from the entranceway in order to tempt shoppers into buying all sorts of other goods they must walk past. This is undeniably one reason why supermarkets inconvenience the shoppers who’d love to be able to get in and out on quick errands.
An NPR story points out, though, that there’s another, more practical reason for the placement of the milk, and it has nothing to do with coaxing customers into making impulse purchases. Another theory for why milk is usually in the supermarket’s back corner holds that this location helps keeps costs down. Milk is a heavy product, it needs to be restocked regularly, and it requires refrigeration. Delivery trucks can pull right into the back of the store near where the milk winds up for sale. That’s simpler and more cost-effective and keeps milk fresher than if the cartons were lugged through stores and stocked in refrigerators that are, say, right near the cash registers.
Why does water cost $5 at the airport?
The restriction on bringing liquids through airport security checkpoints means that anyone wanting a bottle of water while waiting for a flight has no choice but to buy in the terminal—and pay rip-off airport prices. At Los Angeles International Airport, the price of bottled water is so inflated ($5) that a lawsuit was filed. To some extent, the situation boils down to simple price gouging: Retailers know that there are no real other options if travelers want bottled water, so stores can charge whatever they want and people have little choice but to pay up.
Yet a Wall Street Journal report points out that there are legitimate cost factors that lead to higher prices for water and other products sold at the airport:
Why does uncooked chicken cost more than cooked chicken?
Grocery stores and warehouse clubs like Costco regularly sell cooked and seasoned, ready-to-eat rotisserie chickens at prices that are cheaper than uncooked chicken in the meat aisle. At first glance, this makes no sense. Cooked chicken is pricier to prepare, so why isn’t it cheaper to buy poultry you’ll cook at home?
One explanation is that the rotisserie chicken is a “loss leader” meant to drive shoppers into the store when it’s late in the day and they’re desperate to pick up something easy to serve for dinner. Supermarkets might not make much money on these sales—in fact, they may lose money, hence “loss leader”—but they’re successful if they bring in a customer who might not otherwise be browsing the store.
The other explanation for curious chicken pricing is that supermarkets sell lots of cooked chickens when supply is high and some are likely to go bad in the near future. Stores may make less money on rotisserie chickens, but at least they’re not throwing the chickens away. What’s more, if the rotisserie chickens don’t sell, the meat can be used in soup, chicken salad, and other profitable deli items.
Why don't prices just end in round numbers?
Consumer life would be simpler if prices were round numbers—$12 rather than $11.99, for instance. But apparently the so-called “left-digit effect” has a big impact on shoppers’ decisions, and the first digit in a number makes a much larger impression than what comes at the end. So $11.99 seems like a much better deal than $12, even though there’s only a measly 1¢ difference.
Research cited by The Atlantic reveals that stores can grab the attention of customers in a different way by utilizing extra-screwy pricing that ends in, say, .78, .67, or .21. Shoppers have grown so accustomed to seeing prices end in .99 or .95 that they become a blur. But when an item features an unconventional price ($21.68 say), it registers in a way that $21.99 or the flat $22 do not. The shopper is more likely to pause, take note, and (the store hopes) consider purchasing the item, as the special pricing is used to connote, well, special pricing—specifically, a deal.
Another reason for such oddball pricing is that they’re part of a retailer’s secret code that helps stores keep track of various discount strategies. Employees at Gap and Old Navy know that their cheapest prices will end in .*7, while Target’s lowest clearance prices end in .*4. At least that’s what the prices meant not long ago. Retailers know that savvy shoppers have caught on to such pricing systems, and they’ve been known to tweak the code to keep customers on their toes. Don’t put it past stores to also use this kind of unusual pricing to grab shoppers’ attention and lead them to assume it’s a special deal even though the item isn’t even on sale.
Why don't jewelry stores show prices?
More often than not, it’s difficult if not impossible to see how much the sparkling items underneath glass in jewelry stores cost. This may very well frustrate customers, but as one jewelry store worker told NPR, the absence of prices is a carefully calculated strategy. To find out how much something costs, customers must talk to a clerk, who will be able to tell the story behind the item, discuss how it fits into fashion trends, remove it from the case for a closer inspection, and so on. By this point, the sales pitch is well under way.
Studies have also shown that when consumers physically hold merchandise, they’re more likely to develop an emotional attachment and a sense of ownership. Not only are shoppers more apt to buy items they’ve touched, they’ve shown a willingness to pay more money for them compared with stuff that’s been kept at a distance.
Why does popcorn cost so much at movie theaters?
OK, the obvious answer is that movie theaters charge ridiculous markups on popcorn and other concessions because they have a captive audience and people will pay. As this in-depth Marketplace report explains, however, there’s a bit more to it.
One might think that theaters could actually boost profits by lowering prices on concessions and enticing many more moviegoers to get snacks and drinks. But those in the business are under the impression that filmgoers fall largely into two consumer categories—big spenders and extremely price-sensitive—and whatever money is earned from the latter would be negated by lower prices charged to the former. Also, it should be noted that theaters make very little money from ticket sales, meaning it’s essential for the business to milk customers for as much as they can at the concession stand. If it weren’t for rip-off concession prices, ticket prices would have to be much higher, and neither moviegoers nor movie theaters want that.
Why do some stores make you show a receipt in order to leave?
Last fall, an Oregon man sued Costco for $670,000 for an incident in which he refused to show his receipt when leaving the store—and in which his leg was broken in multiple places in a scuffle with employees that allegedly followed. One might ask: Why do Costco and some Walmarts, Best Buys, and other major retailers demand to see receipts in the first place?
There isn’t a big mystery here. The receipt check is a loss-prevention measure. The point is to lower theft, mostly by discouraging it with a policy in which everyone will be eyed over upon leaving the store. This doesn’t stop people from being miffed about confrontational store employees treating paying customers like criminals.
Some retailers say receipt checks aren’t necessarily about shoplifting, but that employees are there to ensure customers have the correct model they were charged for, or supposedly provide some customer service along those lines. “That’s garbage,” one anonymous Best Buy staffer explained to the Consumerist. “It’s patronizing, and you deserve to feel insulted by statements like that.” Still, the Best Buy employee maintains the policy is a good one for retailer and customer alike, because without it, theft would rise and prices would have to increase to make up for the difference.
Apparently, treating everyone like a criminal makes actual would-be criminals give pause to stealing from stores.