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"Have you ever noticed how things cost...seven dollars and ninety-nine cents? Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents? Ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents?
" — Steve Rhoades
, Married... with Children
When the screaming infomercial finally reaches the point of telling you the price you can be sure that price won't be a round number. Nothing will be sold for $10.00, $50.00 or $100.00. Every price will end with .95, .98 or .99.
This trope isn't restricted to TV commercials
. Real world pricing follows this trend as well, and has for a long time
. Called "just-under pricing", this is a psychological tactic to make an item seem cheaper than it actually is
. Gas stations even go so far as to price gasoline in tenths of a cent. See also The Other Wiki
Another possibility is that this method of pricing was originally designed to prevent cashiers from pocketing payments. A price ending with .99 almost guarantees that the cashier will need to open the register to get change, which then logs the sale in the register.
alternative explanation was offered by Paul Harvey
's The Rest of the Story,
detailing the story of a Chicago newspaper mogul who had been selling his papers for a mere penny. In order to encourage newspaper sales, he convinced a large number of business owners to sell goods short by one penny of then-current prices. Of course, consumers would then naturally be encouraged to spend their penny in change on his newspapers.
A fourth theory claims its origin to the Irish tradition of asking for a "luck-penny" from the seller after buying something: if one has just handed over ten shillings, it'll look a bit cheap if the seller won't part with a penny.
It should be noted that the sheer ubiquitousness of the practice all over the world makes these last two explanations rather frivolous. It seems enormously improbable that a Chicago sales ploy or an Irish folk tradition caused modern-day Finns and Malaysians (as seen below) to set their prices the way they do.
The trope has become so prevalent and ingrained that people automatically round prices up in their heads... even if it is
a flat price. For instance, a person seeing $29.99, will immediately think "30 bucks", but if it's priced $29 flat, they may still
round it up and think "30 bucks". On the other hand, said rounding up is a useful way to calculate whether you're still in your budget; rounding 29.50 down to "29 bucks" and being 50 cents over is a Very Bad Thing indeed.
An oddball one is the Brands-Mart chain located mostly in Florida, where all of the prices end in 88 cents and have 88 in the price as well. When the tax is added, these prices usually come out even. Sometimes prices ending in 88 cents or a similar less than 90 number are used by the store to indicate that an item is discounted; this is common with electronics and games.
Some Goodwill thrift shops price things using a cents figure that is a repetition of the dollars figure; for instance, $13.13. This prevents customers from altering the prices by erasing the numbers—it would be blatantly obvious if someone tried changing that to $3.13.
The gimmick also lends itself well to advertising trickery, as someone can claim their item is available for "under $30!" Well, yes, technically speaking, $29.99 is
less than $30...
Prices ending with .99 still appear in Australia even though the lowest coin used is 5c: prices are rounded to the nearest 5 cents when paying in cash.note
However, if paying via EFTPOS or credit card, the amount is not rounded.
This thinking is often carried over to large-ticket items, like cars, at least in the US — nobody cares about a few cents when they're buying a car, but the MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) in dollars will end in 7 or 5 far more often than it will end in 0.
Examples in Media
- Back to the Future part II featured automobile hover-conversions, "only thirty-nine, nine ninety-nine, ninety-five!" ($39,999.95)
- In Clerks, Dante remarks that all prices end in 0.99.
- And yet in the background, all the prices end with the number five.
- Matilda had Harry Wormwood (the father) advising his son to "Never sell a car for a round number. Always go under by 50 pence. It may not look like much, but it makes the prices look a lot cheaper."
- Look Around You shows a machine with a price tag of £999.99½p.
- Married... with Children satirized this when Steve, a bank manager, told Al about his idea about a 99 cent coin to make purchases easier. Of course Al mentions the sales tax which is added to the price, making the coin no better than a dollar bill. Since most countries have the sales tax already in the listed price, he might have considered going abroad.
- An episode of The Antiques Roadshow featured an old Sindy doll from the 1960s. The original price was so-many shillings and 11 pence. There was 12 old pence in a shilling, making this the pre-decimal version of the trope.
- Further to this, there were twenty shillings in a pound, so something costing more than £1 would typically be priced at x pounds 19/11d - i.e. one (old) penny below the round number.
- Bull Island lampooned several ads for an electrical outlet called Power City by placing their staff in different situations where they were still acting as if they were advertising (at home, out driving, etc.). Power City subsequently dropped the .99 from their prices as a result.
- In an early episode of Mad Men, Roger gives this to Pete as an example of the kind of thing he should think of as a huge, great advertising idea, as opposed to trying to be witty and subvert expectations.
- In the Future episode of Kenan & Kel. A lady went to buy just some home groceries that costed 43 million dollars...and ninety nine cents.
- The song "Lord, Mr. Ford" by Jerry Reed contains the following lines:
Well I figured it up and over a period of time, this four thousand dollar car of mine, costs fourteen thousand dollars ,and ninety-nine cents.
- A Strong Bad Email had a price of $249.99.99.99. Yes, that's two forty-nine ninety-nine ninety-nine ninety-nine.
- In Japan, most prices end with 80. As in, it's not 1,000 yen, it's 980. This is probably because the number 8 is considered lucky in Japanese culture, while 9 and 4 are considered unlucky. The reason it's not 88 yen is that 1 yen coins seem to be considered an inconvenient hassle, and many vending machines won't even accept them.
- Taiwan also has many prices ending in 8, and the occasional 80 or even 88, also most likely because 8 is lucky in Taiwan as well.
- Subverted in Malaysia, where they round off anything to the nearest 5 cents. Granted, you pay more if the price has .01,.02,.06, or .07 sen in them. It's due to convenience, and the government wants to save the cost of producing 1 sen coins.
- Home shopping networks in the Philippines would sell any item at a five or four-figure price that always ends with 995.
- Relatively uncommon, but far from unheard of in Israel. The local equivalent of a one cent coin has long ago been phased out, followed by the 5 cent, partly because such a low value coin is considered more of a hassle then anything else, and partly because those coins cost more to stamp then their actual value. Instead, non flat values are simply rounded to the nearest tenth of a Shekel.
- The lowest denomination of currency in Australia is 5 cents, ever since the 1 and 2 cent coins were abolished in the 90s. You'd think this would stop places from advertising And Ninety Nine Cents, but you'd be wrong (although ninety five cents is more common).
- EB Games in Australia actually uses the various prices to sort how items are discounted during sales. If it ends with, for example, 84, then it'll be 25% off.
- An experiment conducted at an Australian restaurant suggests that this pricing trick may actually be effective. After the price of a particular menu item was reduced by a single cent (all prices started at round X.00 figures) customers became 15% more likely to order said item. When everything else was reduced to X.99 to match, the distribution of orders returned to roughly the same as before.
- In New Zealand since 2006, the smallest coin has been the 10 cent. Prices ending in .90 are the most common, but there still are .97, .98 and .99 prices out there.
- It is rare to see a price ending in .95 - there is no fixed rule on whether to round up to .00 or down to .90, although most retailers round down.
- Rounding only takes place on the total amount at the end, and only if you are one of the few people still paying with cash - three-quarters of face-to-face transactions in New Zealand are settled by EFTPOS (debit card), which as you can pay to the nearest cent, does not need rounding.
- Some Euro countries have this subverted, by rounding the price to the nearest 5 cents from the result. Thankfully.
- That's both because of tradition and because the 1c and 2c coins are tiny inconvenient little shits, in fact the Netherlands has taken them out of circulation because of this, two weeks after they were introduced.
- Finland never put them in circulation at all because of this.
- They are still acceptable money, tough.
- In Denmark the smallest coin is 50 øre yet most prices still end in .95 or similar. The prices are usually added first and then rounded off in the end, so that the small parts may add up. The shop "Søstrene Grenes" has wacky prices such as 13.77 or 6.42 as a trademark. Amazingly enough they do not use barcodes but keep a staff that is incredibly fast in typing in the prices manually.
- In Norway the smallest coin is the 50 øre. Prices often end on .90, and for cash purchases prices are rounded to the nearest whole or half krone. The 50 øre was finally taken out of circulation in 2012 after having basically served as the equivalent to a penny to Norwegians for the longest time (as in, it served no purpose in the economy).
- Exception: the British music/video/games retailer Zavvi now prices most of its goods in pounds flat.
- Also, another British music/video/games retailer, Fopp, used to deal in flat prices and adopted the practice before any of the other franchises did. Unfortunately, due to bankrupting and being bought by HMV, only 8 Fopp stores still exist. Zavvi has also gone into administration selling off a handful of stores to HMV.
- With the temporary reduction of VAT to 15%, this has become worse — a fudge bar from EAT now costs £1.57, not £1.60.
- As a point of interest, in PC World a price ending in .97 means that the item has been discontinued and is being sold at a clearance price, making it ineligible for further reductions such as staff discount.
- The joke political party the Official Monster Raving Loony Party actually have the introduction of a 99p coin in their manifesto, to do away with fiddly pennies in change.
- Supermarket chain Asda in the UK tend to have prices ending in .97, which may have something to do with their constant claims of being cheaper than competitors
- The Iceland chain sells in flat prices (or at least at parts of it, say, 1.25 or 3.50).
- In Finland, the smallest coin is 5 cents, but .99 prices are still used. When you buy something, the price is rounded up to the nearest five cents. So actually, you do pay one whole euro for your 99 cent purchase. But if you buy let's say four of those things, the number ending with six is rounded down. Still, the most you can save by this is five cents, so... Nicely trying to deceive the customers here. One has to wonder what the point is of having a single currency if some countries opt out of using some of the denominations.
- You can't opt out: any euro coin is valid in every country using the euro. However, you can make it legal to round everything to the nearest 5 cents, so you don't need them in your register and they drop from circulation. In theory, you can still pay everything you want with loads of 1 cent coins, since it is legal money! In the Netherlands, most shops round it down, but some don't.
- The same rounding is done with cash purchases in Australia where the smallest coin is also 5 cents. However, the exact price is charged when paying by credit or debit card, so you could "game" the system and come out ahead by a couple of cents on every purchase.
- This rounding is really helping right now as VAT for food was reduced lowering the prices by a little over 4%.
- And you're still buying in multiples of four, instead of three or two or even one item at a time, however many you actually need.
- In Switzerland, the lowest coin is 5 Rappen, but prices like 29.95 Fr. are rather rare. Now, Aldi, a German supermarket chain, expanded into Switzerland and introduced the .99 prices. Many people hate this with passion because you mostly get useless 5rp coins back and therefore boycott it. Aldi is cheaper than any other supermarket here, but because of that, almost no one uses it.
- In Portugal all prices shown include tax, and while groceries etc are still priced .99ish, most small things at cafes such as a coffee or cake are in whole euros. It's probably to speed sales when the cafe is busy.
- Once Poland redenominated their money to saner values in 1995, .99 PLN prices appeared. Mostly because "9900 PLZ" didn't have that ring to it.
- In Hungary, 1 and 2 forint coins are no longer in use, however prices don't have to be rounded to 5 forints, and so prices ending in 99 are common. The rounding is done to the final bill if you pay by cash. However, many high-profile stores won't do the rounding if you pay by card. This means it's possible to choose the payment method to your advantage. Unfortunately you can't make a living by saving 1 or 2 forints on every purchase.
- The Game Stop shops in Italy subvert this: while all the prices end with .98, you can choose to donate your two cents change to the charity they are currently sponsoring.
- In the former Czechoslovakia Tomá Baťa's shoe company has become so famous for this that "Baťa's prices" has become a synonym for this kind of pricing.
- Sweden has prices ending in many different decimals, but the most common one is X.90 SEK, but as of 30 September 2010 the centismal subdivision of SEK, öre, is only legal tender on cards, if you pay with cash the price will always be rounded. Video Games in general have prices in the format of multiple of fifty minus one or occasionally five such as 399 or 549.
- Averted on American military installations in Europe. Due to the high cost of shipping coins overseas, pennies are not imported. Prices are rounded to the nearest nickel at the register.
- At least one chain of stores in Pennsylvania ends all prices in wacky numbers like .88 — but the reason is so that, after the 6% sales tax is added, the prices come out to even dollars.
- Walmart corporate policy states that stores cannot set their prices to end in 9, 5, or 0, partially because of this trope.
- Wal-Mart, at least in Canada, also uses the "change the cents to indicate a sale": There's actually a particular number that indicates "this product will not be rolled back any more".
- They also change the cent ending to note that an item is not eligible for a storewide sale. Usually it's .97.
- Wal-Mart is known to discount a product from, for example, 39.99 to 39.98, with a large sign indicating the "savings".
- Gets annoying on the US Playstation Store. Items are priced ending in .99 or occasionally .97, but you can only add whole-dollar amounts to your PSN wallet. This leaves your wallet full of non-refundable virtual pennies that can't actually be used.
- You can totally avert this on the Playstation Store by making a purchase and adding only the necessary amount there. If an item costs 12.99 and you had .07 in the store, you added only 12.92.
- The iTunes Store (if you use the iTunes cards) and Xbox Live Marketplace have the same problem (say I have 190 Microsoft Points left over, and the DLC I want is 1,200 MSP. Normally, I would buy the 1,000 MSP, but I'd have 10 MSP under the limit. The smallest bundle of MSP available is the 500 points one. That would leave me with 490 MSP left over, and the cycle begins again).
- The iTunes Store charges everything ending in either $.90 or 9. One track typically cost $.99, though now it can be $.89 or $1.09. An album might cost $9.90. And a whole 75-track iTunes Essentials set costs exactly $74.25.
- The Nintendo 3DS's eShop dropped the points system for money, so all DSiWare games where changed in favor of the new system (a DSiWare game for 800 points will cost $7.99 on the eShop). Since the eShop adds tax to the frame, games that could fit for 2000 points won't at a $20 card.
- For the record, the sales tax rates in the United States can be found here
- Mexico has an interesting play on this. The smallest legal coin is the 10 cents coin, and thus, in theory, prices are rounded to the nearest multiple of 10 cents... but, most convenience stores and supermarkets run a price rounding program, where they round up the final price to the next peso if your ticket has at least 50 cents, then they account for all the multi-million cents they snagged in the massive round-up, stash then in a bank account, donate them to charity, and at the same time they get free tax breaks!
- 99 Cents Only stores in Southern California and a few other places run on this trope. Every price(before tax) will end in a 9 and the most expensive items they sell will cost $99.99. The company also celebrates the 99th birthday of public figures and names 99 year old individuals as honorary spokespersons. Lastly, they say they're open 9 days a week, one store held a wedding on 09/09/2009 costing 99 cents, and their trucks say that, instead of no cash, the driver only has 99 cents.
- Doubly Subverted in Century Theatres. Concessions sell snacks that usually only have a multiple of 25 cents (and most people have a few extra quarters in their pockets). These prices however, already calculate sales tax. The real cost of a large popcorn isn't $6.50, but around $5.96 with 9% tax.
- The real cost is $6.50 because thats what you pay. Who cares if the cinema or the state gets what money ? Especially since, judging from the examples on this page, the USA is the only place where people even had the idea of listing the price BEFORE taxes.
- 99 cent stores love this trope, of course. In fact, there's a common joke that goes "My family was really rich. We went to the dollar store."
- However, dollar stores have mostly flat-dollar prices. When every item isn't a single dollar, that is.
- Amazon.com offers free shipping on orders $25 or over. It does not on orders of 24.99, leading to customers buying 9 cent washers to push it over 25.
- Brazil has fairly random pricing for things, with the exception of certain specific cheap-goods stores. Most people would leave without claiming the 1 centavo coin they're entitled to in order to avoid being branded as The Scrooge. An alternative would be paying with a debit card.
- In Chile in any supermarket or store, every product will end with 9. For example a chocolate bar might cost 799 Pesos. Sometimes is common to see with 49 with smaller products. And with more expensive products wil be with 990. This is mostly for taxes. But that also brought the problem with the "1 peso" Coin, in supermarkets they insist if you will donate that peso or more to charity just to round up your change. And the fact that no one can buy anything with "1 peso" coins anywhere. In most places they reject those coins saying that those have any value at all.
- In Argentina, the 1 centavo coin was withdrawn from circulation after 2001, and most prices (which include taxes in the sticker price) end in either a 5 or a 0, but you'll occasionally come across something which costs 3.89 or 4.97. By law, retailers are supposed to round down to the customer's advantage, but they tend to round up instead (or offer a 5c candy at kiosks) to make up the difference. Hey, at least you're getting candy...