False anchors: Don’t get sunk this holiday season

This holiday season, retailers seem particularly eager to make their lives more negotiable by selling you on their wares. So now is probably an appropriate time to alert you to one of the oldest negotiation tactics in the book and—in so doing—help to make your own life more negotiable.

Several of my early posts discussed the power of the first offer: in brief, they described negotiation research revealing that the party who makes the initial offer in a negotiation often performs better, particularly when that offer reflects a realistic but aggressive goal. So if you’re selling a used car and consider 12K both possible and hopeful, then making the first offer and making it 12 or even 13 is probably a worthwhile idea. And the underlying reason is anchoring: whoever issues a number anchors both parties’ attention on that number rather than letting it stray elsewhere.

This tactic is known all-too-well to retailers, who would like nothing more than to interest you in their products and then anchor you on their desired price shortly thereafter. But most retailers are far too sophisticated to think they can just quote you an exceptionally high price. They know that your many possible alternatives are just a few clicks away. Instead, they realize they have to be much more subtle in their anchoring. Any guess on their preferred tactic for doing so?

Well, it would take about 20 posts to list all of their tactics, but a particularly common and pernicious one is this: they mention a very high number and label it something like the “retail price” or even the “competitor’s price.” Whether it is, is not the issue. The issue is the fact that you’re now anchored on a very high number. And you’re still anchored on that number when, moments later, they state a much lower price and label in their amazing sales price. “This 65” HD 2160p curved TV normally retails for $3000. But today only, you can nab it for an amazing sales price of $1800!”

Now, all of us, seeing the sales price, are tempted to think “Wow! Fantastic! What a deal!” In fact, the sales price is all-too-often nothing more than the price the retailer really wants you to pay. But by anchoring you on the exceptionally high number and immediately drawing a contrast to their much lower (albeit still aspirational) number, they make you and I and everyone else think we’re getting a fantastic deal.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all retailers are pernicious or unscrupulous, nor that all of us always fall for this tactic. But I do think that most of us, reflecting on this tactic, would admit to ourselves that we’ve fallen for it more often than we realized at the time or would like to tell the rest of the world now.

So what can you do to combat this tactic? Your best hope is to spend a bit more time perusing at least a few more websites in search of comparative data. Is this really such an amazing deal or is it just the going rate? In addition to competitors’ websites, I’d also include the manufacturer’s website, Amazon, and a few independent websites like Consumer Reports as applicable. If that sounds like a bunch of holiday time spent surfing, well, it is. But at least for a consequential and costly purchase, I’d argue that avoiding the allure of the anchor is well worth the time.

Have you ever fallen for this tactic and then realized after the fact?

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One thought on “False anchors: Don’t get sunk this holiday season

  1. Pingback: False anchors II: Don’t get sunk by your teenager | Brian Gunia

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