Retail discount ‘sales’: Why high prices and big discounts go hand in hand

discount-10Vivek Kaul
The sale season is currently on. If you are the kind who likes to frequent malls on weekends (or even weekdays for that matter) you might have realised by now that discounts are on offer, almost everywhere.
The question is why do retail stores do this? As Tim Harford writes in 
The Undercover Economist “We’re all so used to seeing a store-wide sale with hundreds of items reduced in price that we don’t pause and ask ourselves why on earth shops do this. When you think hard about it, it becomes quite a puzzling way of setting prices.”
And why is that? “The effect of a sale is to lower the average price a store charges. But why knock 30 percent off many of your prices twice a year, when you could knock 5 percent off year around? Varying prices is a lot of hassle for stores because they need to change their labels and their advertising, so why does it make sense for them to go to the trouble of mixing things up?,” asks Harford.
There are multiple reasons for the same. As Harford writes “One explanation is that sales are an effective form of self targeting. If some customers shop around for a good deal and some customers do not, it’s best for stores to have either high prices to prise cash from loyal(or lazy) customers, or kow prices to win business from the bargain-hunters. Middle-of-the-road prices are not good: not high enough to exploit loyal customers, not low enough to attract bargain-hunters.”
Also, if the firm were to offer a fixed discount (say 5%) all through the year, it wouldn’t be regarded as a discount by consumers at all. This would happen simply because consumers would not have anything to compare a regular discount of 5% with. A regular discount of 5% compared with a regular discount of 5%, essentially implies no discount at all.
For any bargain to look like a bargain what economists call the “anchoring effect” needs to come into play. As John Allen Paulos writes in 
A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market “Most of us suffer from a common psychological failing. We credit and easily become attached to any number we hear. This tendency is called “anchoring effect”.”
The normal price of any product is the “price” a consumer is anchored to. As Barry Schwartz writes in 
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less “The original ticket price becomes an anchor against which the sale price is compared.”
This comparison tells the bargain hunters that a bargain is available and encourages them to get their credit cards out. Interestingly, research shows that people end up spending much more when they use their credit cards than when they spend cash.
Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich point this out in 
Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them, “Credit card dollars are cheapened because there is seemingly no loss at the moment at the purchase, at least on a visceral level. Think of it this way: If you have $100 cash in your pocket and you pay $50 for a toaster, you experience the purchase as cutting your pocket money in half. If you charge that toaster though, you don’t experience the same loss of buying power that your wallet of $50 brings.”
“In fact, the money we charge on plastic is devalued because it seems as if we’re not actually spending anything when we use cards. Sort of like Monopoly money,” the authors add. Given this, when people do not feel the pain of spending money, they are likely to spend more. “You may be surprised to learn that by using credit cards, you not only increase your chances of spending to begin with, you also increase the likelihood that you will pay more when you spend than you would if you were paying cash,”Belky and Gilovich write.
This benefits the retailer offering the discount. What he loses out on by offering a discount on the product, he more than makes up for through an increase in volumes.
Of course, there are other reasons like trying to get rid of inventory, before a new season comes on. If the retailer has not been able to sell too many jackets during the winter season, he might try to offload it at a discount before the summer season comes on, instead of holding it back till the next winter season. High end designer stores face the risk of styles going out of fashion. Hence, they need to get rid of their inventory pretty quickly. But this doesn’t really hold for everyone (Think about this: how many of us wear clothes that are radically different in style when compared to last year?).
Hence, retailers essentially have sales to get the anchoring effect going, which, in turn, encourages people to get their credit cards out, and spend more money than they normally would. To conclude, here is a tip to avoid the crowds during the sale season. One day before the sale opens, go the store and check out what you want to buy. If you are buying clothes, figure out what you like and check out whether they fit. Visit the store again the next day, and simply pick up the clothes you liked (to the condition that they are on discount). This will ensure you may not have to spend time standing in a queue before the trial room, waiting for your turn.
The article originally appeared on on February 5, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)  

Sensex falls 4% in a week but easy money rally will be back soon

deflationVivek Kaul  

The BSE Sensex has now been falling for close to a week now. As I write this, it’s trading at around 20,000 points, having fallen by nearly 4% since January 27, 2014.
The main cause of this fall has been the decision of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, to go slow on printing money. In a meeting on January 29, 2014, the Fed decided to print $65 billion a month, in comparison to $75 billion earlier.
By doing this, the Fed signalled that it would be going slow on the easy money policy that it had unleashed a few years back, in order to revive the stagnating American economy. The money printed by the Federal Reserve was used to buy government bonds and mortgage backed securities, in order to ensure that there enough money going around in the financial system. This led to low interest rates and the hope that people would borrow and spend more money, and thus help in reviving the economy.
Investors had been borrowing at these low interest rates and investing money all over the world. But with the Federal Reserve deciding to go slow on money printing (or what it calls tapering), this game of easy money is likely to come to an end, soon. At least, that is the way the markets seem to be thinking. And that to a large extent explains why the Sensex has fallen by close to 4% in a week’s time.
One of the major reasons behind the Federal Reserve’s decision to print less money has been the falling rate of unemployment. For the month of December 2013, the rate of unemployment was down to 6.7%. In comparison, in December 2012, the rate had stood at 7.9%. This is the lowest unemployment rate that the American economy has seen, since October 2008, which was more or less the time when the financial crisis started. This measure of unemployment is referred to as U3.
A major reason for the fall in the unemployment numbers has been the fact that a lot of people have been dropping out of the workforce. In December 2013, nearly 3,47,000 workers left the labour force because they could not find jobs, and hence, were no longer counted as unemployed. This took the number of Americans not working to a record 102 million. As Peter Ferrara puts it on “In fact, 
all of the decline in the U3 headline unemployment rate since President Obama entered office has been due to workers leaving the work force, and therefore no longer counted as unemployed, rather than to new jobs created…Those 102 million Americans are the human face of an employment-population ratio stuck at a pitiful 58.6%. In fact, more than 100 million Americans were not working in Obama’s workers’ paradise for all of 2013 and 2012.” Interestingly, the labour force participation rate, which is a measure of the proportion of working age population in the labour force, has slipped to 62.8%. This is the lowest since February 1978. Also, in December 2013, the American economy added only 74,000 jobs. This was lower than the 1,96,000 jobs that Wall Street had been expecting and was the lowest number since January 2011.
What this means is that even though the rate of unemployment is at its lowest level since October 2008, things are not as well as they first seem to be. Interestingly, in December 2013, the U6 “rate of unemployment” which includes individuals who have stopped looking for jobs because they simply can’t find one and individuals working part-time even though they could work full-time, stood at 13.1%. This was about double the official rate of unemployment of 6.7%. Interestingly, through much of 2013, the U6 rate of unemployment was double the official U3 rate of unemployment.
What all this tells us is that the unemployment scenario in the US is much worse than it actually looks like.
In this scenario it is unlikely that the Federal Reserve can keep tapering or reducing the amount of money that it prints every month. Other than the rate of unemployment, the other data point that the Federal Reserve looks at is consumer price inflation as measured by personal consumption expenditure(PCE) deflator. The PCE deflator for the month of December 2013 stood at 1.1%. This is well below the Federal Reserve target of 2%.
If the PCE deflator has to come anywhere near the Federal Reserve’s target of 2%, the current easy money policy of the Federal Reserve needs to continue. As Bill Gross, managing director and co-CIO of PIMCO wrote in a recent column “the PCE annualized inflation rate– is released near the 20th of every month but you will not see CNBC or Bloomberg analysts waiting with bated breath for its release. I do. I consider it the critical monthly statistic for analyzing Fed policy in 2014. Why? Bernanke, Yellen and their merry band of Fed governors and regional presidents have told us so. No policy rate hike until both unemployment and inflation thresholds have been breached.”
Given these reasons, it is safe to say that foreign investors will continue to be able to raise money at low interest rates in the United States, in the months to come. Hence, the recent fall in the Sensex is at best a blip. The easy money rally will soon be back.
The article originally appeared on on February 4, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)