Inside the secret world of price tag codes

Most retailers build complex price codes to reward their most loyal users.


August 9, 2019

What if we told you that the reason Office Depot prices its staplers at $10.03 — instead of an even $10 — is NOT just to mess with your head? 

In fact, that seemingly random extra 3¢ secretly tells you that the stapler has been marked down 3 times AND that it will likely be marked down once more before disappearing from the shelves…

It’s true. But that 3¢ is just the tip of the iceberg. 

You don’t have to be a member of the retail-luminati to benefit from this secret info — you just need to know the codes.

Retailers use codes to communicate extra product info

Most large department retailers — Home Depot, Target, Old Navy — build secret, unpublicized codes into the prices of the products to reveal information about how they’ve been discounted.

A blog called “Rather Be Shopping” maintains a running list of these open secrets. At Best Buy, for example, a price ending in:

  • $X.92 = 1-time price drop; often below wholesale; Great deal.
  • $X.96 = Adjusted price to beat competitor; Good deal.
  • $X.99 = Full price or marginal markdown; Bad deal.

Other retailers have similar codes: At Home Depot, prices ending in $X.06 are on sale but will drop further in 6 weeks, while prices ending in $X.03 are marked down fully and will disappear forever in 3 weeks.

There are some more general takeaways for shoppers, too: Prices that end in 9 are generally bad deals (full price), while prices that end in 7 are generally good deals (marked down price).

But what do the retailers get out of these mind games?

The code’s meant to be cracked — and once it is, it creates loyal, engaged customers. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, the secret menu at In-N-Out is one of the main drivers of the famous burger chain’s long-term financial success.

These “price vocabularies” are the secret menus of big retailers — they engage shoppers by letting them in on a “secret” and create loyalty among the frequent shoppers (who matter most to large retailers) by making them feel like they’re in the club.

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