Decoding the Secret Language of Price Tags

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David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Denim for sale at a Gap store in San Francisco in 2012.

Why do the prices at retailers like Costco and Target usually end in .99, but occasionally feature a quirky 7 or 4 for items in the clearance section? Obsessive shopping experts and store employees have been leaking the “secrets” behind these price-tag code numbers — which can help consumers tell the difference between a so-so sale price and an unheard-of bargain.

Word of how these pricing systems work has been spreading for years, via sites like Consumerist and personal-finance expert Clark Howard’s appearances on HLN. Some of these handy decoders obsessively focus on the pricing system ins and outs of an individual retailer, such as Costco or Target, while others round up pricing decoders for multiple retailers.

Lifehacker recently put together one of the more comprehensive sale-price decoders, and newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published their own versions listing the pricing codes of retailers ranging from Gap to Staples.

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By comparing the price-decoding info in circulation five or so years ago with the codes zipping around the Internet lately, it looks as if retailers haven’t changed their systems at all. Going forward, as more shoppers get more of a clue about whether or not an item on “clearance” is actually a good deal, will stores keep using the same systems? Or might they mix things up to keep shoppers on their toes, and more in the dark? It’s hard to say.

But in light of how common it is for stores to try to manipulate shoppers into buying endless can’t-pass-up deals, it’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario in which a store starts messing with the numbers and codes on price tags with the hopes of convincing consumers that they’re getting monster discounts when the truth is something else.

For now at least, the consensus says that when a price tag ends in something other than .99, it’s a safe bet that the item is below full price. Beyond that, each store has its own quirky pricing system, often with some weird exceptions and caveats. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to tell if you’re getting the best price possible at a few very well-known stores:

Regular price: ends in .99
Cheapest price: usually ends in .00 or .90

Regular price: ends in .99
Cheapest price: ends in .97 (or sometimes .88 or .00)

Gap, Old Navy
Regular price: varies
Cheapest price: ends in .*7

Regular price: ends in .99
Cheapest price: ends in .88 or .97

Regular price: price tag has letter A, I, or P
Cheapest price: price tag has letter C or F
Regular price: ends in .*9
Cheapest price: ends in .*4

(MORE: Turns Out You Only Think You’re Spending Less Money)

There’s no shortage of bloggers who cover shopping and individual retailers obsessively, so search them out for more specifics about decoding store price tags. Another option: when shopping, just ask a friendly-looking employee for insight — ideally when the store manager isn’t around.