Retailers Boost Sales By Marking Goods Down — or Marking Them Way Up

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Go big, or go out of business. Time and again over the last few years, retailers have resorted to big discounts as a reliable means to move merchandise and boost sales figures. In some cases, raising prices is accomplishing the same goal. The aggressive pricing approach is how menswear retailer Jos. A. Bank, for instance, has thrived throughout the economic downturn. As the Baltimore Sun reports, 110 new Jos. A. Bank stores have opened nationwide since 2008 (now there are 527 total), and its sales have increased more than 20% annually over the last couple of years.

To keep the customers coming, Jos. A. Bank doesn’t bother with piddling 10% off promotions. Instead, the “sales are kind of ridiculous … but in a good way,” one shopper tells the Sun. How ridiculous? Right now, the store is hosting a “buy one, get two free” special on shorts, Polos, and short-sleeve shirts, along with 70% off deals on a range of suits, sports coats, and summer clearance items.

When astounding deals like these come and go with regularity, it’s reasonable to wonder whether it’s the original retail prices—which no one seems to pay, ever—that are ridiculous, not the sale prices. If no one is ever really expected to pay full price, then that price is meaningless, existing only as an “anchor,” as marketers call it, to make the inevitable discounts that follow seem all the more substantial and impressive.

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Nonetheless, Jos. A. Bank continues to experience strong sales, and company CEO R. Neal Black tells the Sun it’ll continue to experiment with new “jump the shark” type sales promotions until consumers seem willing to pay more:

“We let the customer tell us,” Black said. “Right now so far this year we are having to continue to discount [in some areas]. The customer is not ready to pay more. When the economy gets better we will see.”

A story in today’s New York Times explains how other retailers are taking pretty much the same approach as Jos. A. Bank:

Apparel stores are holding near fire sales to get people to spend. Wal-Mart is selling smaller packages because some shoppers do not have enough cash on hand to afford multipacks of toilet paper. Retailers from Victoria’s Secret to the Children’s Place are nudging prices up by just pennies, worried they will lose customers if they do anything more.

But the focus of the Times story is actually that, unlike most stores nowadays, luxury retailers have managed to boost sales figures not by discounting, but by consistently jacking up prices—which were already out of reach for middle class shoppers to begin with. Brands like Tiffany, Porsche, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton have all reported strong sales recently, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any items featuring these logos with “buy one, get two free” deals. Or any deals, for that matter. As the Times states:

Many high-end businesses are even able to mark up, rather than discount, items to attract customers who equate quality with price.

Hence, $2,500 shoes and $1,650 face creams at Bergdoff Goodman. The prices for these goods has increased substantially over the last few years, and apparently, these goods are selling well—perhaps at an even faster clip than if they’d been marked down.

Every retailer would love to attract a large mass of consumers, but there are signs that playing to the middle—in terms of quality and price—doesn’t lead to strong sales. A new list of the “8 largest U.S. retailers with the worst sales” includes several middle-of-the-road stores that don’t do markdowns as deeply as Jos. A. Bank and don’t do gigantic markups like Bergdoff Goodman—Sears, Gap, Foot Locker, J.C. Penney.

(MORE: How You’re Manipulated into Buying Stuff You Don’t Want and Paying More Than You Should)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.