Brief - The Hustle

Inside the secret world of price tag codes

Written by Conor Grant | Jun 30, 2020 10:40:51 AM

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.