Caveat Emptor – Psych Games to Sucker Consumers

Consumer Protection Grift Ideas and Issues

            New Orleans      It’s the holiday shopping season once again, but the season for buyers to beware or caveat emptor is every season since so many companies specialize in trying to sucker consumers.  Recently, three of the most common scams lying in the dark corners where the hustle replaces the bustle saw some sunshine, so let’s bask in the light.

How many of us have fallen for the gimmick where we buy something because we’re thinking it’s a deal because the price ends in a 9, like 3.99 or whatever?  Yes, all of us it seems.  Researchers studied years of data from American grocery stores and found “that when items’ prices ended in 9, they were on average 18% higher than when those same items’ prices had different endings.”  It’s a marketing strategy called “just below” pricing.  Part of this scam rests on the effort by stores to raise prices but to “soften the blow” through “charm prices” to mask the maneuver.  Worse, when they find that suckers line up to buy something under the magic of the 9 spell, the price seems to stick there, pretending to be a bargain of constant replay.

Another strategy that grocery and other stores try that has gotten some recent attention is what some call “shrinkflation.”  All of us know how this works.  We’re paying the same, but getting less for our money.  We learned this the hard way at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse.  When someone bought a pound of coffee, we actually sold them a full pound, 16 ounces.  What did we know?  Years went by before we looked at what a pound of coffee was going for at grocery stores and discovered they were all calling it a “pound” and selling consumers 13 ounces.  Now with inflation and companies trying to maintain their profit margins, they just hold the price when they can and skinny the product down.

To round out our triumvirate of scams, the third is what they call “drip pricing in which a company lures in customers by showing a low price and then tacks on fees as they go along. Airbnb has been getting a lot of flak for this and claims that they are going to be more transparent about taxes, cleaning fees, and other stuff larded on.  My worst experience with this was trying to rent a car in Mexico years ago and getting the cheap deal from Expedia, and then finding out that there was mandatory insurance that had to be paid before the car rolled off the lot.  Here’s what’s worse about this kind of scam.  Researchers have found that “When fees were shrouded, customers were 13% more likely to buy tickets [in this case].  In the face of drip pricing, customers failed to anticipate the fees and were undeterred from making the purchase even when the fees were tacked on late in the process.”  Worse, they bought more expensive tickets with this scam.

None of this is anything that we can report to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  It’s the way things are, and it’s up to us to scratch our heads and walk away, rather than being fleeced, if we can help it, that is.  Caveat emptor, indeed!