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'Fair and square' pricing? That'll never work, JC Penney. We like being shafted

You might have seen recently that iconic retailer JC Penney is slumping badly. You almost certainly have seen the reason why: A massive, creative and aggressive new advertising and pricing campaign that promises simplified prices.

No more coupons or confusing multiple markdowns. No more 600 sales a year. No more deceptive circulars full of sneaky fine print. Heck, the store even did away with the 99 cents on the end of most price tags. Just honest, clear prices.

Sounds like a sales pitch aimed at consumer advocates and collectors of fine print frustration, like me. As it turned out, it was a sales pitch that only a consumer advocate could love.

Shoppers hated it.

Could we have a moment of silence please for what might be the last heartbeat of honest price tags?

Not only did Penney’s plain pricing structure fail to attract fair-minded shoppers – business reporters wrote with seeming glee during the past few days that it “repelled” them.

Don't blame Ellen DeGeneres, the spokeswoman for the Penney’s plain pricing campaign. If only executives at the firm were familiar with the work of behavioral economist Xavier Gabaix and the concept of "shrouding," all of this could have been avoided.

Seven years ago, Gabaix and co-author David Laibson wrote a brilliant (if depressing) paper on shrouding and "information suppression" that should be required reading for all consumers and executives considering a harebrained new pricing strategy. The principle is simple, and shows why cheating is rampant in our markets and why honesty is rarely the best policy.

First, a definition of shrouding:

In days gone by, price tags were simple. An apple cost 10 cents. A cup of coffee cost $1. But today, the consumer marketplace is far more complicated, giving sellers the opportunity to create confusion. Many items have follow-up costs that make the original price tag meaningless. 

Computer printers are the classic example. You might get a great deal on a printer, but if the ink is expensive, you lose in the end. In fact, Gabaix argues that it's impossible for consumers to intelligently shop for printers. No consumer knows how much ink costs -- the cartridges don't come in standard sizes, the amount of ink used to print varies and ink costs are unpredictable. That makes the true price of a printer "shrouded," in Gabaix's terminology. Not quite hidden, but not quite clear, either. Advantage seller. It's easy for printer companies to lowball printer price tags and overcharge for ink, enabling them to print money.

If you think about it, shrouded price tags are everywhere. The hotel website might say "$99 a night" but you know the bill will be more like $120 or $130. Pay TV companies promise $30-a-month service, which ends up costing more like $50. And what happens when you buy a TV with a store credit card that offers an upfront discount but a complex interest charge? And so it goes.

Consumers complain about this constantly. That's the basis of the Red Tape Chronicles in fact. At its best, the maddening mixture of coupons, rebates, sales and fine print fees can feel like a game. At worst, it's being cheated. You'd think shoppers would love a chance to buy from a store that doesn't play these games, the way car buyers (allegedly) like shopping at no-haggle auto dealerships.

They don’t, says Gabaix, and Penney should have known better.

“I think it was an ill-advised move,” he said. 

All this price manipulation is really an information war, he says. Shoppers hunt for the tricks that let them save money. Stores hide booby traps that let them take money. It's a bad system, one I've labeled "Gotcha Capitalism." But it is the system we have now.

And it's simply impossible, Gabaix argues, to be the one company that attempts to bridge this information gap. If a firm tries to educate consumers on tricks and traps, and tries to offer an honest product, a funny thing happens: Consumers say, "Thank you for the tips," and go back to the tricky companies, where they exploit the new knowledge to get cheaper prices, leaving the "honest" firm in the dust.

“Once you educate consumers on the right way to shop, they will seek out the lowest cost store, and that will be the one with the shrouded prices,” he said. “Once they are savvier consumers, you make less money from them.”

Gabaix calls this the "curse of debiasing." And it leads to this depressing conclusion: "Shrouding is the more profitable strategy."

To oversimplify for a moment, here's Penney's problem. They told the world that retailers only offer their best prices during crazy sales, and Penney stores would no longer host them. Sensible consumers apparently took that information to heart and decided to simply wait for such sales at other stores. As an added benefit, Penney lowered consumers' search costs, because they now knew they didn't need to bother driving to a Penney’s store anymore.

That's probably not what new Penney CEO Ron Johnson had in mind when he decided to spend his marketing budget on those witty DeGeneres ads. A former Apple Inc. executive who took the Penney’s job in November, he thought he was lifting the store out of the brutal commodity clothing market. He may ultimately succeed at that. But he won't do it by telling customers the firm's pricing is fairer than at other stores, Gabaix believes.

"It will be a very, very uphill battle," Gabaix said. "So, sorry for them."

There have been a few other celebrated efforts by companies to educate consumers that their higher prices are really lower prices after hidden fees. During the last decade, Intercontinental Hotels experimented with up-front pricing that included all fees on its website. Executives at the firm told the New York Times that customers left in droves, choosing competitors with lowball prices. 

More recently, Southwest Airlines has undertaken the most aggressive anti-shrouding campaign to date, picking on other airlines' baggage fees. The profitable carrier is holding its own with its "Bags Fly Free" campaign, but there are indications that the firm won't be able to resist all that free money forever. In what may be a sign of things to come, Southwest elected to leave AirTran's baggage fee structure in place after it acquired the competitor last year. 

Shrouding isn't the only reason Penney's pricing plan is flawed. The firm is also leaving a lot of money on the table by rejecting a phenomenon known as "price discrimination." Some people have more money than time, and some have more time than money. Some shoppers don't mind spending hours to save $20; others would gladly give a store $20 to escape quickly. Smart retailers get money from both. By killing couponing, Penney has eliminated its ability to satisfy price discriminators.

And as others have pointed out, markdowns serve the age-old retailing trick of "anchoring." For some reason, even very smart consumers feel better paying $60 for something if you initially tell them it costs $100, and then reduce the price.

But the real problem is Penney's ill-fated attempt to cast itself as the only fair poker player in a game of cheats. Shoppers just aren't buying it. However unsophisticated consumers are, very few of them believe a pair of shoes bought at Penney's everyday low price will be cheaper than a pair of shoes bought at Macy's on clearance with a 25 percent off coupon.

Like it or not, hidden fees – and secret discounts – are here to stay.

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