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Why Jewelry Stores Hide The Price Tags

Sep 22, 2014
Originally published on September 22, 2014 10:12 am

When Tara Silberberg was a little girl, she helped out at her parents' jewelry store and wrote the prices on the tiny price tags.

"I had such good handwriting, too," said Silberberg. "Just teeny tiny, minuscule little handwriting."

Not that customers would see it: The price tags were turned upside down or tucked away. Even now, when Silberberg runs the store, she still hides the prices.

Customers have to ask Silberberg what the price is, or guess it. It's like playing a jewelry store version of The Price Is Right.

One reason for this is the huge range of prices, says Silberberg. She points out one pair of earrings in her shop window that costs $80 — another pair right beside it costs $2,000.

Customers can get spooked by high prices. "They'll go, 'Oh, this is crazy,' and they'll just walk right out," she said.

Without a price tag, customers have to ask before they bolt. The store gets a chance to explain the story behind the earrings or necklace. That makes the decision to buy more about emotion and not just a number, says pricing consultant Rafi Mohammed.

But recently, Silberberg has noticed that some customers look up prices online before they come in. "They've already pre-shopped, and they know exactly what they're looking for," she said. They also know exactly how much it costs.

Silberberg is about to open a new jewelry store, and she's thinking about putting price tags on some moderately priced items in the shop window. For the more expensive stuff, though, customers are still going to have to ask.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we report on the bottom line in a sale. You want to know just how much something costs, but not all retailers want to tell you right away.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you're buying plane tickets online, it's all about the price. Show up in a jewelry store and everything's different.

INSKEEP: When you see something in the window, the price tags are commonly hidden or turned upside down, which is not an accident. Here's Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR's Planet Money team.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: When Tara Silberberg was a little girl, she helped out a lot at her parent's jewelry store in Brooklyn.

TARA SILBERBERG: We used to have to handwrite those price tags. And oh my God, I had such good handwriting too, just like teeny tiny, like, miniscule little handwriting.

SMITH: Not that most customers would see it. Like in most jewelry stores, the price tags at The Clay Pot were tucked away behind all the gold and silver. Forty years later, Silberberg runs the store, and the price tags work the same way. If you're looking around, you have to guess how much something costs. You basically end up playing a kind of a jewelry store version of "The Price Is Right."

Well, let's see. Let me find something that I really like.

SILBERBERG: That you appeal - that appeals to you, yeah.

SMITH: I spotted a silver necklace that looked affordable.

So what kind of stone is that? Is that a diamond, or is that...?

SILBERBERG: That's a white topaz.

SMITH: OK, so I'm going to guess that's like $110?

SILBERBERG: Up, go up.

SMITH: Can you imagine doing this with sweaters at the Gap? This game is not played outside of jewelry stores, but Silverberg says there's a good reason for this. In any jewelry store, there is a huge range of prices. She points to a couple items she has displayed in her shop window.

SILBERBERG: There's so many things in this cabinet that all cost completely different amounts of money. That specific pair of earrings is, like, $80 and the ones next to them are $2000.

SMITH: Hiding the price tag keeps you from spooking the customers.

SILBERBERG: And I see people, like, they'll just wander right to the back to the very expensive section and see one piece that cost, like, $3,000. And they'll just go oh, this is crazy. I can't, I can't - and they'll just the walk right out.

SMITH: Without a price tag, if you see something you like, you have to ask about it before you bolt, which brings us to the second reason jewelry stores like this. Rafi Mohammed is a pricing consultant.

RAFI MOHAMMED: They want the opportunity to take the jewelry out of the case and really explain the subjective value to consumers so they'll understand it and pay a premium for it.

SMITH: The subjective value - aka the story. It's actually the most valuable aspect of a lot of jewelry. Take that topaz necklace, the one that's not $110.

One-hundred and fifty?

SILBERBERG: That one's $400.

SMITH: Oh, OK. So...

SILBERBERG: And so that's one of the designers - like, a Brooklyn designer who I've known forever, Lisa Jenks, who's really an iconic designer right now.

SMITH: You see how easily Silberberg slipped into the story? And the next thing you know, she's comparing the necklace to a car.

SILBERBERG: It's like a Tesla. When you look at that necklace, the details of it...

SMITH: The price Silberberg gave me is four times more than I thought it would be. But before the shock had a chance to set in, I find out the designer is an icon, the quality is exceptional. This is isn't a necklace, it's a Tesla. Four-hundred dollars is a good price to pay for a Tesla. You see - you see this is what happens without price tags. Suddenly it's not about a number, it's about emotion. Mike Lynn teaches this technique at the Cornell Hotel School.

MIKE LYNN: By asking what's the price of this? I've indicated to the salesperson that I'm interested in that item. They turn the price over and then if I reject the item, it looks as though it's too expensive for me, that I'm not as wealthy or generous as I might want to appear.

SMITH: These techniques have worked for jewelry stores forever. But these days, people have a lower tolerance for it. I ran into Nancy Kempf (ph) at The Clay Pot. She was actually the store yesterday, trying to get some earrings for her daughter-in-law.

NANCY KEMPF: And the lady from the jewelry store was in the back and I didn't want to bother her. I didn't know what the price was and so I did leave. I'm back again and I bought it (laughter).

SMITH: Owner Tara Silberberg did not like this story. But she's also noticed more customers coming in with Internet pricing research in hand.

SILBERBERG: With pictures on their smartphones and they've already pre-shopped and they know exactly what they're looking for.

SMITH: And exactly how much it costs. It's hard for any business these days to profit off of keeping information from customers and Silberberg knows this. She's about to open a new location in Manhattan. And she's thinking about changing her approach, putting price tags on some of the more moderately priced items in the window, but just in the window. Once customers are in the store? If they want to know a price, they are going to hear the story. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.