Flashback Friday.

I’ve posted about the use of apparent discounts as a marketing tool and about the rise of the shopping cart. Since I’m on a little marketing-related posting trend, I figured I might as well post about restaurant menus. New York Magazine recently provided an analysis of menus and how things such as placement, images, and so on influence purchases.

Here’s the menu analyzed in the article:

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Some of the most interesting elements numbered on the menu:

1. Pictures of food on menus are tricky. They can convince people to buy a dish, but more expensive restaurants don’t want to be associated with low-cost places like Denny’s or Applebee’s. In general, the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely there are to be images of food, and if there are, they’re drawings, not color photos. And, apparently, the upper right corner is where customers’ eyes go first, so you need to make good use of that section.

2 and 3. You list something expensive (like a $115 seafood dish) in a prominent spot to serve the same function as a “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” on a sales tag at a retail store: to set an anchor price that makes other prices look like a bargain in comparison. The $70 seafood dish listed next to the $115 one seems way more reasonable than it would have it listed without the comparison anchor price.

5. Listing dishes in a column encourages customers to skim down the list, making it more likely that they’ll be focusing on the column of prices rather than the dishes themselves, and will pick from among the cheapest things on the menu. If the dish names are connected by a line of dots or dashes to specific prices, this is even more pronounced.

8. Restaurants often use “bracketing”:

…the same dish comes in different sizes. Here, that’s done with steak tartare and ravioli — but because “you never know the portion size, you’re encouraged to trade up,” Poundstone says. “Usually the smaller size is perfectly adequate.”

Notice the same things I mentioned in my post about meaningless discounts: high prices used to set an anchor that makes everything else look cheap and an emphasis on apparent savings to distract the customer from how much they’re spending.

And the bracketing thing is marketing genius: the larger portion is usually just a little bit more expensive, so the customer is likely to focus on the fact that the additional amount is actually a bargain, but you usually have very little information about how much bigger it actually is.

Knowledge is power! And now you know.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

Yesterday I went to Marshall’s to take some photos for this post and overheard a conversation between a teenager and her mother that perfectly illustrated what I was planning on posting about. The teen pulled her mom over to look at a purse she wanted for Christmas. It was $148, but she was making a case to her mom that it was actually a great buy compared to how much it would have been at the original price, which, as she pointed out to her mom, was listed as $368.

Ellen Ruppel Shell discusses this topic at length in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Here’s a relevant photo I took:

It indicates that you are getting a great deal by shopping at Marshall’s compared to the original price of the item.

Except that is not, in fact, what they are saying. Look at the image again: the wording is “compare at…” The tags do not say “marked down from” or “original price” or “was.” There is a crucial difference: when you are told to “compare at,” the implication is that the shoes were originally $175, making them a super steal at $49. The “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” (MSRP) gives you the same info.

But as Shell points out, these numbers are largely fictional. Marshall’s is not actually telling you that those shoes were ever sold for $175. You’re just supposed to “compare” $49 to $175. But $175 may be an entirely meaningless number. The shoes may never have been sold for $175 at any store; certainly no specifics are given. Even if they were, the fact that a large number of them ended up at Marshall’s would indicate that many customers didn’t consider $175 an acceptable price.

The same goes for the MSRP: it’s meaningless. Among other things, that’s not how pricing works these days for big retail outlets. The manufacturer doesn’t make a product and then tell the retailer how much they ought to charge for it. Retailers hold much more power than manufacturers; generally, they pressure suppliers to meet their price and to constantly lower costs, putting the burden on the suppliers to figure out how to do so (often by reducing wages). The idea that manufacturers are able to tell Macy’s or Target or other big retailers how much to charge for their items is ridiculous. Rather, the retailer usually tells the manufacturer what MSRP to print on the tag of items they’ll be purchasing (I saw some tags at Marshall’s where it said MSRP but no price had been printed on it).

So what’s the point of a MSRP on a price tag, or a “compare at” number? These numbers serve as “anchor” prices — that is, they set a high “starting” point for the product, so the “sale” price seems like a great deal in comparison. Except the “sale” price isn’t actually a discount at all — it’s only a sale price in comparison to this fictional original price that was developed for the sole purpose of making you think “Holy crap! I can get $175 shoes for just $49!”

The point is to redirect your thinking from “Do I think these shoes are worth $49?” to “I can save $126!” This is a powerful psychological motivator; marketing research shows that people are fairly easily swayed by perceived savings. A sweater we might not think is worth $40 if we saw it at Banana Republic suddenly becomes worth $50 if we see it at Marshall’s (or T.J. Maxx, an outlet mall, Ross, etc.) and are told it used to sell for $80. We focus not on the fact that we’re spending $50, but on the fact that we’re saving $30.

And that makes us feel smart: we’ve beat the system! Instead of going to the mall and paying $368 for that purse, we hunted through the discount retailer and found it for $148! We worked for it, and we were smart enough to not get conned into buying it at the inflated price. Shell describes research that shows that, in these situations, we feel like we didn’t just save that money, we actually earned it by going to the effort to search out deals. When we buy that $148 purse, we’re likely to leave feeling like we’re somehow $220 richer (since we didn’t pay $368) rather than $148 poorer. And we’ll value it more highly because we feel like we were smart to find it; that is, we’re likely to think a $148 purse bought on “sale” is cooler and better quality than we would the identical purse if we bought it at full price for $120.

And stores capitalize on these psychological tendencies by giving us cues that seem to indicate we’re getting an amazing deal. Sometimes we are. But often we’re being distracted with numbers that seem to give us meaningful information but are largely irrelevant, if not entirely fictional.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Within the last decade, the grain quinoa has emerged as an alleged “super food” in western dietary practices. Health food stores and upscale grocery chains have aisles dedicated to varieties of quinoa, packaged under many different brand labels, touting it to be a nutritional goldmine. A simple Google search of the word returns pages of results with buzzwords like “healthiest,” “organic,” and “wholesome.” Vegan and health-enthusiast subcultures swear by this expensive food product, and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) even declared the year 2013 International Year of the Quinoa, owing to the grain’s popularity.

The journey of the grain — as it makes it to the gourmet kitchen at upscale restaurants in countries like the United States — however, is often overlooked in mainstream discourse. It often begins in the Yellow Andes region of Bolivia, where the farmers that grow this crop have depended on it as almost a sole nutritional source for decades, if not centuries. The boom in western markets, with exceedingly high demands for this crop has caused it to transition from a traditional food crop to a major cash crop.

While critical global organizations like the FAO have been portraying this as positive, they tend to discount the challenge of participating in a demanding global market. Within-country inequality, skewed export/import dynamics, and capitalist trade practices that remain in the favor of the powerful player in these dynamics – the core consumer – cause new and difficult problems for Bolivian farmers, like not being able to afford to buy the food they have traditionally depended upon.

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Meanwhile, growing such large amounts of quinoa has been degrading the Andean soil: even the FAO outlines concerns for biodiversity, while otherwise touting the phenomenon.

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While efforts have been put in place by farmer unions, cooperatives and development initiatives to mitigate some negative effects on the primary producers of quinoa, they have not been enough to protect the food security of these Andean farmers. Increased consumer consciousness is therefore essential in ensuring that these farmers don’t continue to suffer because of Western dietary fads.

Cross-posted at Sociology Lens.

Aarushi Bhandari is a doctoral student at Stony Brook University interested in globalization and the impact of neoliberal policies on the developing world. She wants to study global food security within a global neoliberal framework and the world systems perspective.

Flashback Friday.

Behold, the taken-for-granted, unexceptional shopping cart:

Until last week I had never truly thought about shopping carts. I mean, I occasionally notice one stranded in an unexpected place, and as a kid I loved the occasional chance I had to push one a bit and then jump on and race down an aisle. But last week I started reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and it turns out that the story of the shopping cart is fascinating!

So, way back in the day, stores weren’t like they were today. You went in and there was a long counter and you had the clerk show you the wares. If you’ve read some Jane Austen or Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve undoubtedly come across a scene where a clerk is showing someone bolts of cloth. That’s how things worked: almost everything was behind the counter; you told the clerk what you were interested in and they showed you your options. You haggled over the price, decided on a nice gingham, the clerk wrapped it for you, and off you went. Most retail outlets worked more or less along these lines (think of a butcher, for instance).

But if you were a shop owner interested in keeping prices down, this situation might be less than ideal. It required a lot of clerks, and experienced clerks who knew all the goods and could be trusted to set an acceptably profitable price for them, too.

Eventually retailers, including F.W. Woolworth, tried putting more products out on display in the store so customers could help themselves. Some customers liked the ability to pick items off the shelves directly, but more importantly, you didn’t need as many clerks, and certainly not such highly-paid ones, if their job was mostly reduced to ringing up the purchases at the register.

Of course, this presents a new problem: how are customers going to carry all their purchases around the store while they make their selections? Well, a basket they could carry over an arm would work. But these baskets had a downside: they didn’t hold much and they quickly got heavy.

As Shell notes, in 1937 a man from my home state of Oklahoma, Sylvan Goldman, came up with a solution. He owned the Humpty-Dumpty grocery store chain (I still remember Humpty-Dumpty!). He and a mechanic he hired came up with a cart on which two shopping baskets could be suspended. And thus the shopping cart — or, as Goldman named it, the “folding basket carrier” — was born. As Goldman suspected, people bought more when they didn’t have to carry a heavy basket on their arm. The folding basket carrier was advertised as a solution to the burden of shopping:

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The only problem was…people didn’t like the new contraptions. From a 1977 interview (via):

I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier, and we had an attractive girl by the entrance that had a basket carrier and two baskets in it, one on the top and one on the bottom, and asked them to please take this cart to do your shopping with. And the housewive’s, most of them decided, “No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.” And the men would say, “You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?” And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop.

Goldman eventually had to hire attractive models to walk around the store pushing the carts to make shopping carts seem like an acceptable or even fashionable item to use.

Over time the basic design was changed to have a single basket, with a flat shelf on the bottom for large items. The baskets could also then “nest” inside each other (instead of being folded up individually), reducing the amount of space they required for storage.

The Baby Boom ushered in the final major design change, a seat for kids:

Notice in the illustration above how small the cart is compared to what we’re used to today. I remember as a kid going to the local grocery store, and the carts were quite small; eventually a big warehouse-type grocery store came to the nearest city and their baskets seemed gigantic in comparison. Because obviously, if people will buy more if they have a cart instead of a full arm-carried basket, they’ll buy even more if they have a bigger cart — not just because there’s more room, but because it seems like less stuff if it’s in a bigger cart. Restaurants discovered the same principle — people will want bigger portions if you give them bigger plates because it visually looks like less food and so they don’t feel like they’re over-eating.

Without enormous carts, Big Box discounters and wholesale club stores couldn’t exist. You can’t carry a box of 50 packages of Ramen noodles, 36 rolls of toilet paper, a box of 3 gallons of milk, enough soup for the entire winter, and a DVD player you just found on sale around without a huge cart.

So there you have it: labor de-skilling + marketing – stigma of feminine association + Baby Boom + profits based on increased purchasing of ever-cheaper stuff = the modern shopping cart!

I love it when I learn totally new stuff.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

If you are worried about the abuse and exploitation of non-human animals, you can become a vegetarian or a vegan. But if you worry about the abuse and exploitation of humans, there is no morally upright consumer choice you can make, short of growing 100% of your food yourself.

This is the main message of journalist Eric Schlosser in this 4min video produced by BigThink. In it, he summarizes the extent of the exploitation of poor people, mostly immigrants, in the restaurant industry, the meatpacking industry, and the production of fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

Especially for the people who pick our produce, he insists, the working conditions “are more reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century than they are with the twenty-first century.” It is “literally slavery.”

Watch here:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Most Americans, when asked if they are affected by advertising, will say “not really.” They think other people are influenced by cultural messages, but that they are somehow immune.

Whether people are shaped by the media they consume seems to be a perpetual question. The fact that billions of dollars are spent every year attempting to influence us is probably a sign that advertisers know it works. Scientists get in on the action, asking pressing questions like: Do violent video games increase violence in real life? Do sexy, thin models hurt girls’ self-esteem? We do the studies and the answers are often inconclusive, probably because of how complicated the relationships are.

Psychologist Stefano Ghirlanda and his colleagues asked a slightly simpler question: Do celebrity dogs influence the popularity of dog breeds? They looked at 100 movies with prominent dog characters from 1939 to 2003 and compared the release date to breed registrations. The answer seems to be: with the exception of box office flops, yes.

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Given that many dog movies are made for kids, I’d be interested in the mediating role of parenthood. Companies that make children’s products like sugary cereal know that they can get the parent to buy their product if the kid is annoying enough about it. So, they market to children directly. I’d love to see if people with and without small children were equally affected by the breed of dog in this year’s movie.

The researchers method of popularity, moreover, was registration with the American Kennel Club. Pure bred dogs are expensive. So, I wonder if the power of these trends varies by social class. If a family can’t afford a “Beethoven,” they may be more likely to just adopt a mutt from a neighbor’s litter.

In any case, though, this seems like incontrovertible evidence that we’re influenced by mass media. But you already knew everyone else was, didn’t you?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Our Pointlessly Gendered Products Pinterest board is funny, no doubt. When people make male and female versions of things like eggs, dog shampoo, and pickles, you can’t help but laugh. But, of course, not it’s not just funny. Here are five reasons why.

1. Pointlessly gendered products affirm the gender binary.

Generally speaking, men and women today live extraordinarily similar lives. We grow up together, go to the same schools, and have the same jobs. Outside of dating — for some of us — and making babies, gender really isn’t that important in our real, actual, daily lives.

These products are a backlash against this idea, reminding us constantly that gender is important, that it really, really matters if you’re male and female when, in fact, that’s rarely the case.

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But if there were no gender difference, there couldn’t be gender inequality; one group can’t be widely believed to be superior to the other unless there’s an Other. Hence, #1 is important for #3.

Affirming the gender binary also makes everyone who doesn’t fit into it invisible or problematic. This is, essentially, all of us. Obviously it’s a big problem for people who don’t identify as male or female or for those whose bodies don’t conform to their identity, but it’s a problem for the rest of us, too. Almost every single one of us takes significant steps every day to try to fit into this binary: what we eat, whether and how we exercise, what we wear, what we put on our faces, how we move and talk. All these things are gendered and when we do them in gendered ways we are forcing ourselves to conform to the binary.

2. Pointlessly gendered products reinforce stereotypes.

Pointlessly gendering products isn’t just about splitting us into two groups, it’s also about telling us what it means to be in one of those boxes. Each of these products is an opportunity to remind us.

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3. Pointlessly gendered products tell us explicitly that women should be subordinate to or dependent on men.

All too often, gender stereotypes are not just about difference, they’re about inequality. The products below don’t just affirm a gender binary and fill it with nonsense, they tell us in no uncertain terms that women and men are expected to play unequal roles in our society.

Girls are nurses, men are doctors:

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Girls are princesses, men are kings:

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4. Pointlessly gendered products cost women money.

Sometimes the masculine and feminine version of a product are not priced the same. When that happens, the one for women is usually the more expensive one. If women aren’t paying attention — or if it matters to them to have the “right” product — they end up shelling out more money.  Studies by the state of California, the University of Central Florida, and Consumer Reports all find that women pay more. In California, women spent the equivalent of $2,044 more a year (the study was done in 1996, so I used an inflation calculator).

This isn’t just something to get mad about. This is real money. It’s feeding your kids, tuition at a community college, or a really nice vacation. When women are charged more it harms our ability to support ourselves or lowers our quality of life.

5. Pointlessly gendered products are stupid. There are better ways to deliver what people really need.

One of the most common excuses for such products is that men and women are different, but most of the time they’re using gender as a measure of some other variable. In practice, it would be smarter and more efficient to just use the variable itself.

For example, many pointlessly gendered products advertise that the one for women is smaller and, thus, a better fit for women. The packaging on these ear buds, sent in by LaRonda M., makes this argument.

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Maybe some women would appreciate smaller earbuds, but it would still be much more straightforward to make ear buds in different sizes and let the user decide which one they wanted to use.

Products like these make smaller men and larger women invisible. They also potentially make them feel bad or constrain their choices. When the imperative for women is to be small and dainty, how do women who don’t use smaller earbuds feel?  Or, maybe the small guy who wants to learn how to play guitar never will because men’s guitars don’t fit him and he won’t be caught dead playing this:

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In sum, pointlessly gendered products aren’t just a gag. They’re a ubiquitous and aggressive ideological force, shaping how we think, what we do, and how much money we have. Let’s keep laughing, but let’s not forget that it’s serious business, too.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

When it comes to forming an opinion on poverty, some Americans just can’t seem to understand why poor people can’t just stop being poor. One of the things that gets harped on is the idea that poor people spend money on frivolous things; somehow some people believe that, if the poor just gave up their cell phone and Nikes, they would pop up into the middle class.

What these people don’t realize is the extent to which being poor is living a life of self-denial.  To be poor is to be forced to deny oneself constantly. The poor must deny themselves most trappings of:

  • an adult life (their own apartment, framed pictures on the walls, matching dishes);
  • a comfortable life (a newish mattress, a comfy couch, good shoes that aren’t worn out);
  • a convenient life (your own car, eating out);
  • a self-directed life (a job you care for, leisure time, hobbies, money for babysitters);
  • a life full of small pleasures (lattes, dessert, fresh cut flowers, hot baths, wine);
  • a healthy life (fresh fruits and vegetables, health care, time for exercise);
  • and so, so many more things that don’t fit into those categories (technological gadgets, organic food, travel, expensive clothes and accessories).

They have to actively deny themselves these things every day. And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves (and members of their families) these things, perhaps, for the rest of their lives.

So when someone sees someone (they think is) poor walking down the street with a brand new pair of Nikes, perhaps what they are seeing is someone who decided (whether out of a moment of weakness or not) to NOT deny themselves at least one thing; perhaps they are seeing someone who is trying to hold on to some feeling of normalcy; perhaps what they are seeing is a perfectly normal person who just wants what they want for once.

I was thinking about this today when I saw a postcard at Post Secret (which, to be fair, may or may not have been submitted by someone who struggles financially).  The postcard, featuring a PowerBall receipt, reads “It’s the only time I feel hopeful”:

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For many poor people, hope and the absence of fear and worry are also luxuries they live without.

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.