Retailers' Math: Confusing On Purpose

Photo by Shawn Campbell

By Donna Freedman

When faced with a "10 for $10" sale, do you automatically buy 10? Or do you skip the deal because you don't need 10?

Check the fine print, suggests the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Couponing." Rachel Singer Gordon notes that unless the ad specifies "when you buy 10" or "must buy 10," you can walk out with one, or 11, at the sale price.

Or how about supermarket specials like "six for $10": Do some people think not just that they have to buy six but also that the final cost is 60 cents apiece? 

Maybe. A reader once suggested that the math-challenged might have trouble with that one. She also thought that some shoppers, stymied by dividing six into 10, might move along even if the price break was decent and the item was something they used regularly.

As I noted in "When a store's deal isn't a good deal," we need to question our needs. We also need to question our arithmetic.

Store math
Retailers use all sorts of psychology to get us to buy, such as placing cheaper products on the lowest shelves, betting you won't feel like bending down to get the less-expensive spaghetti sauce -- assuming you see it at all -- or putting milk all the way in the back of the store, requiring you to walk past tempting nonessentials to get there.

They send out coupons, too. Lots of them. Recently a major retailer mailed me a certificate for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more. My first thought was, "Nice -- one-third off!"

Except that I don't usually shop at this store and that there's no guarantee I would find something that cost only $15.

Gordon's book gives another common example: 12-packs of soft drinks advertised as "buy two, get two free." The fine print will say something like "save $11.98 on four," which means that the first two 12-packs cost $5.99 each. Thus, you'd pay about $3 for each of the four.

These days that's not a bad price -- especially if you, like me, send away for free 12-pack coupons through My Coke Rewards and wind up getting four free rather than two. But suppose you wanted only one 12-pack and you wanted to pay $3 for it?

No can do. "You would have to buy in quantity to get the savings," Gordon writes.

Here's one that gets to me regularly: "Buy one and get the second for 50% off." I am reasonably intelligent, but that "50% off" distracts me. For a split second I think I'm getting two items for half-off.

It wouldn't be nearly as attention-getting if the retailer advertised it as "get 25% off each of two items." Like I said: psychology.

Doing the math

Two more examples I've seen: "Spend 'X' dollars on paper products and get a free $5 gift card" and "Spend $50 dollars and get $10 off your next purchase of $50."

Here's what I think about those deals:

  • The first one was at a store whose paper-product prices aren't the best. The $5 would bring them almost into line with a discount retailer.
  • The second, at an outdoors shop, wound end up requiring you to spend an additional $40 to save $10.

Those deals might be acceptable if you were too pressed for time to hit the discount retailer, or if you'd used a price comparison website and an online coupon codes site to make sure that was the best deal on outdoors gear.

Obviously, we should all take time to do the math. Twice, if necessary. When we're rushed and preoccupied we may not be firing on all consumer cylinders.

Your smartphone probably has a calculator. Don't be too proud to use it.

I don't have a smartphone, and sometimes I'm not too smart (see "getting two items for half-off," above). Thus I make it a point to read ads a couple of times and, if need be, to scribble the math in the margins. Among other things, I need to compare the 25%-off price on two name-brand products to the cost of the store brand, especially when I'm in the market for only one.

Retailers can't be blamed for wanting to sell as many widgets as possible. Consumers can't be faulted for wanting the best deals they can get.

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