Rather be shopping? You’ve gotta know the code

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By Christopher Elliott

Pay attention to the last digit of the price tag. It could tell you if you’re getting a bargain, or paying full price.

At least that’s what Kyle James says.

His theory — developed over a 13-year career as a blogger and shopping expert — is that every business has a price-tag “code.” It’s an internal pricing system that, if you understand it, helps you determine if you are getting a good deal or if you should wait to buy, as the price will be lowered.

Meaning of price codes at Costco

Prices ending in .99 are full retail price.


Prices ending in .97, .88, or .00 mark down prices and offer substantial savings over the full retail price.

A price tag with an asterisk (*) on it means you are getting the best price possible. The asterisk signifies that the item is discontinued. It will be deleted from the warehouse in the very near future.

Meaning of price tags at JCPenney

Prices ending in .00 – full price.

Prices ending in .99 or .97 – That’s a clearance price, and it’s typically a good deal.

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And prices ending in .98 – these were your “2 for” deals, so look for a second item for purchase.

“I got started on the story when I saw a news report about Target last fall that explained how you can use the cents column to figure out if you’re paying full price or getting a sale price,” he told me. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool, I wonder if other stores have an internal pricing system like this as well?’”

James outlines all of these discoveries in a recent post on his blog. So far, he has cracked the code for 15 stores, and he has promised more.

If you’re a deal hound, you’ll definitely want to pay attention to the price code. But the code has a few inherent weaknesses. (Here’s a story of patience put to the test. The Popcorn Factory made a promise with a promotion code, but the $25 credit it promised never arrived.)

Limited supplies

If word gets around that an “8” at the end of a price is a definite sale, how long do you think it will take for a business to change its prices? If you said, “As fast as it can print new labels,” give yourself a pat on the back. Needless to say, the codes probably have a limited shelf life.

Don’t let the code control you

Just as a “clearance” sign can override a shopper’s common sense, so, too the right digit at the end of a tag could short-circuit your ability to make a rational decision. Even if you know a product is on sale, ask yourself: Is it a good deal for me?

The product matters more


Fair warning, fellow shopaholics: Even if you can get past the likelihood that an enterprising company will switch a code and you can shake off its influence, you need to pay attention to the actual product. Red labels at apparel stores may indicate a deal, but if the product is damaged or shoddy, what’s the point? Maybe there is a reason it’s on sale.

Bottom line: Knowing the code is key, but so is context. There are lots of other factors to consider in a purchase.

Let the code be your guide.

Do you trust prices ending in .99?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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