One for the price of one!

It’s a sad statement about my life that so many of my blog posts find inspiration at McDonald’s.  The official reason for this is that McDonald’s restaurants represent a cross-section of modern society, the touchstone against which any apparent cultural trends can be tested for ubiquity.

Really, though, it’s just that I eat at McDonald’s a lot.

Every time I go to McDonald’s, I order a baked apple pie.  I do this because they are cheap and delicious, and because after many years I have finally forgiven McDonald’s for replacing their deep-fried dessert pies; whoever made that decision is objectively and without hyperbole worse than Hitler.

And, every time I order a pie, I am asked the same thing: “Just one?”

At first, this seems like an odd question.  Yes, the pies are delicious enough to be eaten in groups (of pies, not people, although I suppose the latter works as well if you get enough pies), but the cashier never asks if you would like just one Big Mac, or only a single Large Fries.  The reason for this question, presumably, is that the pies are officially priced at 2/$1.  So, when the cashier asks if I want only one, he’s making sure that I don’t want to get two at the regular price.  But, if the pies are 2/$1, what does it cost to buy only one?

50¢.

“Hmm,” you might say, “buying two pies isn’t much of a deal, is it?”

And, this is what leads me to the topic of my post today: bulk pricing that suggest a deal or sale when there isn’t one at all.

Now, I’ll cut McDonald’s a little slack on this one, since I know the history behind this particular pricing.  There was a time when pies cost 99¢.  Then, there was a promotion: two pies for a dollar.  Well, that was a pretty good deal, and it seemed reasonable that the cashier would point out to anyone buying only one pie that a second pie could be had for a penny more.  Then, at some point (roughly around when the super-size option disappeared, making me wonder if encouraging multiple desserts was attracting unwanted scrutiny), the pie deal went away, but somehow it was the 2/$1 price that stuck, and a single pie became 50¢.  So, while it still strikes me as vaguely scam-like to offer a price in such a way as to give the impression of  a special offer where none exists, the official 2/$1 price is at least still the same price as when it did represent a second pie for only one cent.  In a sense, the price got better when the sale promotion ended, so I’m inclined to feel generous towards what at this point sure seems like an effort to encourage needless pie-buying.

My local grocery store, however, has no such excuse.  It’s a major national chain and uses a different-coloured price sticker to indicate special prices.  Special prices, however, are not necessarily sale prices.  My favourite brand of yogurt is priced in big letters: 3/$0.99; that sounds like a good deal.  In much smaller font is the price for each individual yogurt cup: $0.33.  Hostess Fruit Pies (yes, in general I like pie) are available in bulk: 10/$6.50; individually, $0.65.  Well, I’d better buy ten then!  I suppose a case can be made that yogurt and Hostess pies are somehow items more likely to be purchased more than one at a time, but I’m skeptical that three and ten are the usual amounts, respectively.

My personal favourite is the occasional sale price on 1-litre cartons of milk: 10/$10; or, for the mathematically-aware shopper, available individually for $1 each.  Now, think about it; this is milk.  Those 10/$10 1-litre cartons are sitting in the freezer right beside the 2-litre and 4-litre milk jugs.  Is anyone going to buy ten 1-litre cartons of milk?  That’s going to happen only if a shopper is so boggled by the pricing that he thinks not only that 10/$10 is a better deal than $1/each, but that he also thinks it’s a better deal than the 2-litre and 4-litre jugs, which at their perfectly normal, non-special prices cost less than $1/litre.  As such, this milk pricing has literally no use beyond confusing customers.

My point?  Well, partly I’m annoyed that it’s so transparent.  Give me some credit here; I can do basic math.

But, more importantly, I don’t want to do basic math.  It’s bad enough that I have to keep track of plainly-presented prices while I’m shopping.  I shouldn’t have to decipher the cost to buy milk.  Shopping should not be work; it should be a fun, magical experience of going through a store and putting everything I want in a happy little basket.  Taking that away from me is not going to get me to buy ten 1-litre milk cartons, and it’s also not going to make me enjoy shopping in general.  Transparent attempts to confuse a shopper just put me on my guard, and diminish the fun in finding things I want and taking them home.

Which, I suppose, is what really peeves me here.  Not only is such pricing insulting in its attempt to manipulate my buying habits, but it’s not even productively insulting.  I’d enjoy my shopping experience more, and spend more money, if I weren’t constantly reminded that the company I’m buying from is trying to trick me.

I’m not asking for a large chain store to act in the best interests of its customers instead of its profits.  As nice as that would be, I don’t think its reasonable to ask a business to put its customers ahead of itself; that’s just not how a modern western economy works.  But, if a business is going to try to put itself first, and actually end up hurting its own sales as a result (which is what happens when I lose my “Yay for stuffz!  Tra-la-la!” attitude about shopping) then no one wins, and I have less fun shopping.  Lame.

So, if anyone reading this happens to work in the middle or upper management of the grocery store chain which I am writing about, or any other store that uses a similar pricing model, then here’s a hint: it’s lame.

And, if anyone reading this happens to be the person who decided to take deep-fried dessert pies off the menu at McDonald’s, then you can burn in hell.

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