Last week there was a media flurry about the The Times report that women are routinely charged more for similar or essentially the same items by some retailers. This “BIC for her” phenomenon seems to be more prevalent than thought. One of our researchers was asked for her comments by a number of media outlets and appeared on press, radio and TV discussing the issue.
I have therefore asked Carol McKenzie to provide some of her thoughts on the issues here.
“The challenges for the retail sector on the high street has been making headline news in recent years. On Tuesday 19th January The Times’ Consumer Affairs editor, Andrew Ellson published a front page piece that captured a different perspective on what the high street is or is not offering consumers: parity in pricing of products between the genders. Having analysed hundreds of products to find equivalent items marketed at men and women, Ellson’s headline: ‘Women Charged More on ‘Sexist’ High Street’ revealed the extent and breadth of products where differentials in pricing exist. The piece also revealed the amount of the disparity in the price of some of the products analysed.
I was contacted to ask my views on this issue by several media and provide some thoughts on this below.
Price discrimination is defined as ‘the ability to charge more to one group of consumers than another for similar products’. Essentially, this is permitted practice for retailers. Pricing structures and marketing strategies are part of a business model that ostensibly seeks to maximise profits. However, although the targeting of one particular consumer group over another in terms of a product or service intuitively makes good business sense, it is the absence of the ‘group’ in relation to the genders that does not make sense. Gender is not a consumer ‘group’. Retailers do not have the luxury of avoiding this fact. It is therefore not surprising that the revelation of the prevalence of discriminatory pricing has captured the imagination of the media, the public and indeed, the government’s attention.
In case anyone has not noticed, we are living in a value-driven, cost-conscious and extremely competitive retail environment, more so now than at any other time in living memory. This is as true for consumers as it is for producers, retailers, and marketing. Given this, we should not really be surprised that a simple observational study as Ellson has done, reveals a rather uncomfortable truth: that discriminatory pricing does exist between the genders. Interestingly their headline banner is ‘sexist’, and not, ‘discriminatory’. This reveals yet another aspect to this perspective and this relates to broader issues about patriarchy and the roles and position of men and women in society. Sexism and discrimination are not to be selectively confused here as it blurs the distinction, if not the debate, that needs to be had about the prevalence of pricing differentials.
What retailers are extremely clever at, is knowing the difference between what women want, and the more fickle or tricky consumer ‘groups’ including the young, single, married, families, ageing old groups, poor, middle income, rich, wealthy, fit, unhealthy, and so on. It is as difficult for marketing strategists to target different spending or income groups as it is to keep on top of new trends and product innovation, ethical awareness, or indeed fashion. This perhaps explains why we observe such stark pricing differences in everyday products that men and women ‘share’. Razors and shaving foam we both use routinely or, as in the case of a pair of jeans, an item of clothing that is perhaps worn more than any other item across the entire world. Once the branding is right, then you are onto a winner, as the success of Levis 501s attests. Volume matters for profit maximisation.
A combination of increased choice reflects the space in the market which results in greater competition which in turn (in theory at least) lowers the price for the consumer. Therefore, there is more pressure for producers and retailers, I would presume, to identify and target gender-neutral items as a voluminous product, easily, if not lazily, converted into profit.
References and Coverage
The Times, ‘Women Charged More on ‘Sexist’ High Street, by Andrew Ellson, January 19th 2016, pps.1 & 6. Also available online (note subscription required to read whole article) at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/irishnews/article4669030.ece
The Independent, ‘Pink Razors and Aladdin Y-Fronts Show Sexism at Work on the High Street’, January 20th 2016, by Kate Willis, pps.2 & 22. Also available online (note subscription required to read whole article) at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/why-do-goods-marketed-at-women-cost-a-third-more-than-their-male-equivalents-a6821946.html
BBC Radio Scotland, ‘Newsdrive’ 4-6pm, Tuesday 19th January 2016, Listen on BBC iplayer 01:36:07-01:44:40 (8 minutes), at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vmzdl
BBC1 Breakfast Broadcast, video link appearance (with the Fawcett Society), Wednesday 20th January 2016, broadcast at 8.40am”