Rather be shopping? You’ve gotta know the code


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 understood, helps you determine if you are getting a good deal or if you should wait to buy, as the price will be lowered.

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For example, if you’re shopping at Costco, did you know:

✓ Prices ending in .99 are full retail price.

✓ Prices ending in .97, .88, or .00 are marked 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 means the item is discontinued and will be deleted from the warehouse in the very near future.

At JCPenney, here’s what the tags mean:

✓ Prices ending in .00 – full price.

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

✓ 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 story on Target last fall about how can you 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’s cracked the code for 15 stores, and he’s 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.

Supplies are limited. 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 a code will be switched by an enterprising company and you can shake off its influence, you need to pay attention to the actual product. Red labels at apparel stores may signal 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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62 thoughts on “Rather be shopping? You’ve gotta know the code

  1. Hmmm…is one number somehow inherently more untrustworthy than another…hmmm….I’d have to say not unless it’s PI, because no one knows how that one ends.

  2. 16 years ago, when I worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods 99 was regular price, 98 was sale price, 97 was clearance. Who knows what it is now. Even then, all the stores had different numbers for the same thing.

    I say, if you need it and you think it’s a good price, then it’s a good price. It’s too difficult, and pointless, to figure out every store’s price changes and what they mean.

  3. Chris, I can see a future column ranting against all prices ending in .99 as being deceptive and fraudulent! War on .99!

  4. Attempting to determine what a specific digit might signify in a posted price seems like someone has way too much time on their hands. So the logic is that if you see a price with the magic number in it, you should just automatically buy it because it is a “sale” or “markdown” and is a great price? Reminds me of the story where a store was not selling a specific item they had lots of that they needed to get rid of. They put up a display with a sign saying 2 for 1 pricing and sold out in no time. But the actual price per item at the 2 for 1 price was higher that the normal individual retail!

    A price is a price. If it is lower than what I normally see that item for and I need the item, then great I might buy it. If I don’t need it or I don’t foresee a need for it in the near future, then I am not going to buy it. But then I don’t “shop” – I go and buy specific things I have already decided I will buy that day. In and out of the stores with minimal interaction.

    1. Best Post Of The Day! I could not agree more. Do people really just go shopping, as in going to the store so they can look for things to buy? I too know what I want to buy first, and then go buy it.

      I will never forget when my stepfather came home one day and announced how he just got the most amazing deal, he went into a jewelry store and they had a fancy brand name watch that retailed for $1,800 on sale for $600 and it was too good of a deal to pass up. My mom was furious because he just wasted $600 that we didn’t have, on something we didn’t need. He kept insisting it was such a good deal he had to buy it, and that he actually saved us $1,200. This was at a time when we were barely making ends meet and qualified for free school lunch. So $600 was a lot of money for us.

      1. Good for your mom! That is something I wish everyone understood. Now, if he bought it for $600 knowing it truly was worth more and intended to sell it, maybe. But I somehow think that eBay wasn’t around then to sell it for $800.

        And – ohhhh Kohls annoys the *()%@ out of me with the ‘savings today’ on their receipts. They never sell their items at full price, always have discount coupons at the register, so that ‘savings’ is such a fat lie.

        1. No eBay back then, not even internet. And the after story is the pawn show wouldn’t even give more than $200 for it because it was now considered used. We even went to an appraiser who said that new it was worth about $600-$800 new because everyone marks them below MSRP. My step dad then went on to wear the watch regularly, whichw as a woman’s watch.

          I hate Kohls as well, and then they give you a coupon when you leave that you must use within a few days. So you have to return and spend more money, which I simply refuse to do. I have bought some items I’ve needed there int he past, which seemed like good deals to me. Other times I go and nothing seems like a decent deal even though Kohls insists it is.

          1. Here in Tampa Bay, Kohl’s attaches a $10 off coupon to the newspaper a couple of times a month. A $25 minimum purchase is required. All of their other discounts can be used with the coupon. I’ve gotten some excellent buys using this.

          2. I know whatever clothes I buy at Kohls must be considered disposable, it is poor quality and I know will only last a season, so in that regard cheap is good. But my work clothes, I’ll stick to my higher end places so I will have them for 5 years or more (I wear suits daily) and it is cheaper in the long run.

        2. In the 90s I worked at Kohl’s while finishing college. At any given time 80% of the items in the store were “on sale.” Often, when compared to Macy’s, etc… the prices were pretty good and I bought a lot there. Now, though I HATE shopping there since they went to that stupid “Buy one get one half off” construct. For many of the items that doesn’t even make SENSE. Who wants two food processors? Arggghhhh

        3. I’ve always known that if you pay full price at belks, then you’ve paid too much. If something isn’t on sale today, then it will be tomorrow. Or at the very least, you’ll get a coupon for it on Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m beginning to feel the same way about Macy’s. I hate shopping so I don’t get caught up in this stuff. If I need/want it and I like the price, I buy it. If it’s on sale later, I figure my time using the item was worth something.

    2. I mostly agree. There are things that I do want (certainly not a need) and I will buy them for the right price. Sadly the stores and I disagree on what price constitutes ‘right’. It is mostly kitchen items that rarely go on sale (fancy attachments for my fancy mixer). These codes won’t do anything for me, I know the prices, but I do occasionally look up the items to see if the price moved. Then eventually I’ll move on (or go to eBay). Other than that, I am like you and determine my need, do some research, then just buy it (as opposed to ‘shopping’ which is vague in its intent and results in things that need to be dusted or hung with tags until the next trip to goodwill).

      1. I’ve wanted the pasta maker attachment set for years and years and the price never changes. I still can’t justify it because I will probably just use it once after I realize how much work it is to make pasta, and how much work it is to clean the attachment.

        1. That’s exactly what I wanted. I bought it finally on eBay and enjoy it. The attachment is easy to clean since you cannot wash it. You let it airdry and use the brush to wipe away anything left behind. I got the roller and a spaghetti cutter (meh) and fettucini cutter (yea).

          1. Oh, and it is SO easy to make the pasta. Just use the paddle to mix the ingredients for 30 seconds, the dough hook for 2 minutes, knead for a minute or two, let sit for 20-30 minutes and you’re ready to go by the time it takes for your water comes to a boil.

          2. The fettucini cutter is the one piece I want the most, and tat makes the cleaning sound a lot easier. I was expecting to have to use a tiny brush between all the parts. I am asking for it for my birthday now 🙂

          3. When I got the three piece set it came with a little brush but I’m sure an art store would have one. I spent $50 on a local class on pasta making before I bought the attachments. It was a good class and it was great to try things out before spending the money, but that one class was a third of my attachment set! I hope you enjoy it if you do get it.

        2. I just make pasta by hand. Easy enough and I get a good upper body workout. I’ve gotten pretty good at cutting the sheets of pasta into approximately equal strips for fettuccine or linguine. Still can’t quite get the angel hair right. 😉

        3. Early, early as a newly married woman, I agonized over buying a food processor because it was $125. That was, and still is, a lot of money. Thirty years later I’m still using that same food processor and I consider it one of the wisest purchase I’ve ever made. I sometimes filter my purchases through that lens in trying to determine if a price is right.

      2. Need = Want these days. Most of us have no need for anything because we have mostly everything we could ever use.

        Did I “need” the new cell phone I just recently got? No, the one I had worked acceptably well. But I really “wanted” the new one! And it was on SALE! And I had a coupon! And, and , and … 😉

        1. I have no problem if someone buys something they want, as long as they can afford it. But, like I’ve mentioned before, I used to work in A/R, so it’s a big issue for me. I would get people filing for bankruptcy all the time who owed me ~$3-5K, and their filing would show they owed their credit cards $25,000, and owed 10 to 20 other companies money as well including the Franklin mint, QVC, etc. Most of the companies they owed were things like home shopping, retail store cards, etc.

          Now don’t get me wrong, I am okay with people assuming debt for things they need or things that are very important like education or a home, as long as they determine how they will pay it off, and are able to pay it off before they buy it. I even have sympathy for people who loose their jobs and now need help. But I am sort of jaded because most of the people who I saw file for bankruptcy spent money they didn’t have frivolously on useless junk which I believe one should never go into debt over. Basically, everyone needs to call Suze Orman and go on her “Can I Afford It” segment before they buy anything.

          1. I hate the “Can You Afford It” segment. Half the people have no clue and the other half, I believe just want to brag about how much money they have. Also, I would never dare go on her show. She would give me the Suze Smackdown.

          2. Hahaha!! The Suze Smackdown!!! I totally agree, I HATE the people who are on there to brag about how much money they have, that really annoys me. I really do hope she is helping the clueless people though. It’s those people that worry me.

            Really, you are 26, have a primary house and a rental property that is paid off, and have 800K in retirement and 400K in savings and make $300K a year, have $6,000 in monthly expenses (including your primary mortgage), $15K in debt (Really? Why?) and you want to know if you can afford to spend $1,000 on a new camera? Why do they bother calling. And what do they do and how can I get into that line of work? Seriously, at 26 I had maybe $8,000 in retirement and sacrificed a lot to be able to save that much.

            Okay, maybe now I hate that segment too.

          3. I really hate it when an 11 year old girl comes on who’s saved her allowance for a year and wants to spend it all on something, and Suze gives her a lecture about how much interest she could earn on the money in 20 years, and how she should only spend about 10% of her savings or something ridiculous. Kiddo, you have my blessing to spend all of it on whatever you want.

          4. Good point too. Allowance should be off limits, if the kid saves for a year she darn well deserves her toy. She already got good lesson in saving up her allowance.

    3. When I was in college, my best friend’s parents owned the leased fine jewelry departments in all of the Dillard’s in my hometown and I would work there summers and holidays. Their pricing was to take the wholesale price and multiply it by four. They would write that figure on the tag and cross it out, then put half that price next to it so that the customer would think they were getting half price jewelry.

  5. I’ve never purchased gasoline for anything that didn’t have a 99 cent suffix.

    Additionally, large retailers are so clever as to change to .97 just to fool us into thinking something is a markdown. Better known ploys are taking merchandise at the regular price and dumping it helter-skelter on a table. This is supposed to make us think it is a sale item that has been picked-over.

    1. I lived in a small town in the mid west for a few years after grad school. I remember a new gas station coming to town and all of their gas prices ended in 8/10 cents rather than 9/10 like everyone else. It was the talk of the town and everyone flocked there, it even made headlines in the local paper. So for every 10 gallons, you would save one Penney, one headline was “A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned”. This place also had long lines. I paid my extra 9/10 of a cent at a closer station and never waited in a line. Then Walmart started selling their gas for 7/10 of a cent and the new place was history.

    2. The reason it’s all helter-skelter is that most people (in this case shoppers) are pigs and don’t clean up after themselves. Stick around most stores and you’ll see some associate attempt to straighten it up regularly.

  6. And sometimes the MSRP ends in .99 or .98 too, then what?

    If something is on sale, the question I ask my self is, do I really need it, or will I need it, if the answer is no, then I don’t buy just because its on sale.

    As long as we are sharing codes, a lot of car dealers use the codes on used cars (where many dealers don’t show a price), to let the salespeople know the price of the used car. The general rule is the price will be written backwards, and will generally be $6,000 more than the dealer paid for trade in. Often the first two and last two digits are the date the car was traded in. Salespeople get the leeway to try to sell the car for the full $6,000 mark-up, or even more if they think they can, but can also drop the price as well, knowing their commission is reduced. After a certain period of time (varies by state) the car becomes taxable and generally can be sold for only $2,000 above what they took it for and the sales person will; get a flat commission, which is a better deal for them, because the dealership wants the car gone.

    Example: code says: 040552123 the car was taken in on April 23, for $6,550. The dealer’s goal is to sell it for $12,550 or more but will negotiate, probably by as much as $2,000 depending on how sales are. If your states law is 3 months before its taxed, then on July 23, they will go all out to sell the car and will easily drop the price to $8,550.

    I can’t guaranty every dealership does it this way, and some who do may change it slightly as well, but I know many people in several states who use the same code.

    1. My brother used to deliver a well known bread to groceries. Although different companies may use a different code, he taught me: Monday= Blue, Tuesday = Green, Thursday = Red, Friday = White, Saturday = Yellow.

      1. That sounds right to me. 🙂

        We also got Sunday bread recently added to the rotation which is an orange tag.

        I worked for a grocery store early in my life and both the big name high price bread and the store’s own brands were coded exactly that way. Also, the store bread was exactly the same as the big name bread just a different wrapper (only difference was the delivery guy would take back all of the big name bread that was old where the store was stuck with whatever it could not sell of its own), so I always bought the store brand and save about half the price.

        1. A lot of store brands are just using providing their own labels on the same brand name product. This has been going on for decades.

          1. True, but there are many customers who won’t believe that and buy the name brand. Much to the joy of the bread companies.

          2. It is important to point out that this doesn’t just apply to bread. Canned goods have been handled this way for decades. Lately I have been noticing on items in the medical section of CVS that there are signs on the pricing tags on the shelves stating that the product isn’t a generic of the similar brand name.

          3. Isn’t, or is?

            I read a story in the paper about a survey of who bought generic medication and who didn’t and why. It said that most people in the health field bought generic medication and said it was because it was exactly the same as brand name, while most other people bought the brand name and said it was because they believed it was higher quality than the generic.

          4. Isn’t….according to individual signs, so you have to look at the shelf tag before making the purchase, don’t assume.

          5. I take a prescription drug that is available as generics made by multiple drug companies. One pharmacy near me stocks the generic made by one company while another stocks the same generic made by a different company. One of them works perfectly for me, the other does absolutely nothing for the condition I take it for. So generics are not always exactly the same as the original name brand. Unfortunately insurance companies don’t understand that and force patients to take generics if they want to be reimbursed.

            When it comes to over the counter pain killers and allergy meds, probably not so much different. The main difference in those is in the additives in the medicine like colors and flavors.

          6. I, too, have experienced different results with generics. Pharmacies change supplier all the time and one might work well but the other company’s doesn’t.
            Regarding over the counter generics, CVS is the only store I have seen the tag stating that the generic isn’t made by the brand company. Don’t know if it applies at other stores and they just don’t make the notation for customers.

          7. The article I read just talked about OTC meds like pain killers and cold medicine, etc. In my opinion, if a generic isn’t the same actual medicine, than it should not be sold as if it were. But who am I to take on big pharma. Believe me, I wish I could take on big pharma.

    2. In our area, the date baked is also placed on the colored plastic tag. Never buy on Wednesdays unless it is a local bakery and you know they bake that morning.

  7. It is a good idea to know these codes. But I need it and I want it are to different shopping habits. I hit the clearance racks in all stores to see what junk is left over. We buy 1 in 100 items on the fly that we look at, but consider it fun to search. When I need new dress shirts, I want what I want and I am not looking at prices, yet will always accept discounts. Shopping is a drag or a passion – make your own decisions. I do not know that in my entire life, that I have looked at anything but the final price, but can start the next time in the stores.

  8. I find this interesting that a man is being quoted as figuring this out and writing about it As they say, you are late to the party honey 🙂

  9. A Costco employee clued me in to their code a couple years ago. Though they don’t broadcast it, I don’t think it’s a huge secret. Their prices are such that if I really want or need something, I can buy it at their “full price” and it is still usually a good deal. Anyone who has shopped at Old Navy knows the drill: purchase early when the selection is best, you’ll pay full price. You can wait for the price to drop, but you risk limited or no selection. I don’t see any attempt to deceive.

    1. Over the years, stores don’t carry the amount of inventory they use to. So especially over the holidays, if you see something, buy it. If the store has a good return policy, then take it back for repricing if it goes on sale, as you might not find it later on when that sale comes up.

      1. Especially with clothes! If you’re a common size, buy it now! By the time it goes on steep discount, all that will be left are size 0 and size 2X!

  10. Reading sales signs in stores is important. In Macy’s they place the dates of the sales on their larger pricing boards. Those towels you see on sale, may stay on sale for 3 months. Grocery stores also put the last sale date on shelf tags. That coffee you buy that is currently on sale may stay on sale until the end of next month. However, I have learned that they can pull those tags at any time and I have seen something on sale yesterday that stated it was to be on sale for 2 weeks, get pulled today.

  11. I only shop when I absolutely have to, but I do shop Costco, even if I have to pay more. From what I understand, they pay their workers a living wage. But this information is still good to know!

  12. “His theory — developed over a 13-year career as a blogger and shopping expert — is that every business has a price-tag “code.” Oh, I was taught this my first week working at a large clothing retailer. It’s not a secret and exists more for the company to keep things organized at the store level (where to display and group merchandise) and at higher levels (keeping track of what sold for full price vs. sale price, etc). A silly article, really.

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