Reading: The Psychology of Pricing

Photo of the upper half of a man's head is shown. He's wearing a mesh fabric cap with multiple electrodes connected to it.

You will notice that when we discussed the value equation in the previous reading, we referred to perceived benefits and perceived costs, rather than absolute/actual benefits and costs. Every customer perceives benefits and costs differently, and many of these perceptions aren’t even conscious. There are very few buying decisions in which a customer meticulously lists and weighs the benefits and costs in order to determine value. More often than not, the buying process involves snap judgments and decisions, and psychological factors likely come into play.

Despite tremendous advances in brain research, the factors involved in perception and decision making are still not well understood. We do know that perception is highly individual and complex. If you, as a marketer, are trying to understand how consumers perceive something abstract like the “value” or “benefit” of a product, it’s important to know that there is certainly a psychological dimension to that perception, but there isn’t a scientific formula that can give you all the answers or accurately predict whether someone will buy. Still, you can avail yourself of the interesting work that has been done in this field and be aware of some of the factors that might affect buying decisions.

Studies of Psychology in Pricing

Most of our understanding about the psychology of pricing comes from research studies that explore buyer behaviour.

The Case for the Number Nine

Nine photos of the number nine presented in three rows of three. Each nine is graphically unique.

Many studies show that customers are more likely to buy products whose price points end in the number nine. That is, they prefer products that cost $99 over identical items priced at $100. Somehow the brain perceives greater value from a small price change that ends in nine.

A study in the journal Quantitative Marketing and Economics validates the benefit of using nines in pricing—with a few important qualifiers, noted below. The study compared purchases of women’s clothing discounted to $35 and the same clothing discounted to $39. The study found that 24 percent more consumers purchased when the clothing was priced at $39, even though the price was higher.

The study found that if a product has been available at a different price for a long time, then changing the price to end in nine will have a smaller effect than if it’s a new product that starts out with a price that ends in nine. It also found that if a product is marked “on sale,” the nine will have a small impact.

The researchers conclude that the nine has more power in situations where the buyer has limited information. If there is enough information for the customer to suspect that the nine is being used to manipulate the sales decisions, the customer is less likely to buy.[1]

Providing Pricing Options

Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor.[2]

In the presentation of pricing, anchoring has a powerful impact on buyer behaviour. In negotiated pricing, the first price offered becomes the anchor. For example, the initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiations, so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable even if they are still higher than what the car is really worth.

On company Web sites, on restaurant menus, and in the layout of retail stores, anchoring is used to adjust perceptions of price. The prominent presentation of a higher-priced item lifts the buyer’s price expectations in a way that makes other items seem more reasonable, even if their prices are also high.

Inviting Price Comparisons

Are there limitations on the impact of anchoring? Another study examined the impact of providing price comparisons on buying behaviour.

First, researchers listed popular music CDs on the auction site eBay flanked by CDs of the same title with different prices. In one auction, CDs with an opening bid of $1.99 were positioned next to CDs of the same title with a starting bid of 99 cents. In a second auction, those with a starting bid of $1.99 were positioned next to CDs with a starting bid of $6.99. In an auction, the buyer sets the top price, but the cheaper CDs positioned next to the $6.99 CDs sold at much higher prices than the same CDs presented next to those with an initial bid price of 99 cents.

Researcher Itamar Simonson explains, “We didn’t tell people to make a comparison; they did it on their own, and when people make these kinds of comparisons on their own, they are very influential.”

Next, the research team ran the same auctions but in this case explicitly told the auction participants to compare the $1.99 price to the price of the other CDs presented. This explicit instruction to compare prices adversely impacted buyer behaviour in a number of ways. The price of the adjacent CDs ceased to have a statistically significant impact, buyers waited longer to make the first bid, submitted fewer bids, and were much less likely to participate in multiple auctions simultaneously. Simonson explains, “The mere fact that we had asked them to make a comparison caused them to fear that they were being tricked in some way.”[3]

So while pricing comparisons can be a value presentation strategy, they are not without risk.

As you can see, pricing has a profound impact on buyer behaviour, not only in determining what the buyer can afford, but in the deeper perceptions of value and the marketing exchange process.

  1. Anderson, E. T. & Simester, D. I. (2003). Effects of $9 price endings on retail sales: Evidence from field experiments. Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 1(1) 93–110.
  2. Anchoring bias in decision-making, Science Daily, retrieved September 29, 2015
  3. LaPlante, A. (2005, July 1). Asking consumers to compare may have unintended results. Insights by Stanford Business.


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