Frugal NationFrugal Nation

Retailers' math: Confusing on purpose

Does '10 for $10' mean you have to buy 10? Will a $5-off coupon pull you into a store you usually don't bother with?

By Donna_Freedman May 16, 2012 5:48PM

Image: Woman looking at mannequins in boutique, smiling © Michael Hitoshi/Digital Vision/Getty ImagesWhen faced with a "10 for $10" sale, do you automatically buy 10? Or do you skip the deal because you don't need 10?

Check the fine print, suggests the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Couponing." Rachel Singer Gordon notes that unless the ad specifies "when you buy 10" or "must buy 10," you can walk out with one, or 11, at the sale price.

Or how about supermarket specials like "six for $10": Do some people think not just that they have to buy six but also that the final cost is 60 cents apiece?

Maybe. A reader once suggested that the math-challenged might have trouble with that one. She also thought that some shoppers, stymied by dividing six into 10, might move along even if the price break was decent and the item was something they used regularly.


As I noted in "When a store's deal isn't a good deal," we need to question our needs. We also need to question our arithmetic.

Store math
Retailers use all sorts of psychology to get us to buy, such as placing cheaper products on the lowest shelves, betting you won't feel like bending down to get the less-expensive spaghetti sauce -- assuming you see it at all -- or putting milk all the way in the back of the store, requiring you to walk past tempting nonessentials to get there.

They send out coupons, too. Lots of them. Recently a major retailer mailed me a certificate for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more. My first thought was, "Nice -- one-third off!"

Except that I don't usually shop at this store and that there's no guarantee I would find something that cost only $15.

Gordon's book gives another common example: 12-packs of soft drinks advertised as "buy two, get two free." The fine print will say something like "save $11.98 on four," which means that the first two 12-packs cost $5.99 each. Thus, you'd pay about $3 for each of the four.

These days that's not a bad price -- especially if you, like me, send away for free 12-pack coupons through My Coke Rewards and wind up getting four free rather than two. But suppose you wanted only one 12-pack and you wanted to pay $3 for it?

No can do. "You would have to buy in quantity to get the savings," Gordon writes.

Here's one that gets to me regularly: "Buy one and get the second for 50% off." I am reasonably intelligent, but that "50% off" distracts me. For a split second I think I'm getting two items for half-off.

It wouldn't be nearly as attention-getting if the retailer advertised it as "get 25% off each of two items." Like I said: psychology.

Doing the math

Two more examples I've seen: "Spend 'X' dollars on paper products and get a free $5 gift card" and "Spend $50 dollars and get $10 off your next purchase of $50."

Here's what I think about those deals:
  • The first one was at a store whose paper-product prices aren't the best. The $5 would bring them almost into line with a discount retailer.
  • The second, at an outdoors shop, wound end up requiring you to spend an additional $40 to save $10.
Those deals might be acceptable if you were too pressed for time to hit the discount retailer, or if you'd used a price comparison website and an online coupon codes site to make sure that was the best deal on outdoors gear.

Obviously, we should all take time to do the math. Twice, if necessary. When we're rushed and preoccupied we may not be firing on all consumer cylinders.

Your smartphone probably has a calculator. Don't be too proud to use it.

I don't have a smartphone, and sometimes I'm not too smart (see "getting two items for half-off," above). Thus I make it a point to read ads a couple of times and, if need be, to scribble the math in the margins. Among other things, I need to compare the 25%-off price on two name-brand products to the cost of the store brand, especially when I'm in the market for only one.

Retailers can't be blamed for wanting to sell as many widgets as possible. Consumers can't be faulted for wanting the best deals they can get.

What are your (least) favorite examples of retail math?

More on MSN Money:

May 17, 2012 6:41AM
It once took me awhile to explain to a co-worker that the $100 item she wanted to buy on sale (50% off, then save an additional 20%) was going to cost her $40 (50% off = $50, then 20% off that = $40). She couldn't figure out why you don't add the 50% and 20% off amounts together for 70% off. She was expecting to pay $30.
May 17, 2012 12:06PM

I remember experiencing a situation concerning a percentage off when purchasing gas. I was telling the lady I received a 3 percent rebate when I purchased gas using my credit card. She told me she got the same discount by pre purchasing her gas on her Wal Mart Card. I tried to explain to her that she got 3 cents off each gallon and I received a 3 percent rebate. She replied that 3 cents and 3 percent is the same. When I took paper and pencil and showed her the difference if gasoline was $3 per gallon she finally accepted there was a difference. What is so sad is this lady has a college degree and was an office manager for a major tax prep company. 

May 17, 2012 1:35AM
As a retail sales professional, I find it heartbreaking that too many teens AND adults don't know how to figure out even something as simple as 25%-off. Granted, the examples the author put out there can be rather confusing - but, if you really READ the ad (even two or three times, as she says she sometimes must), the meaning is actually clear.
May 16, 2012 9:42PM
Anything to make a buck. Not all American businesses are crooked, but all businesses are in business to make money. When you run across a deal have your calculator!!!
May 16, 2012 9:53PM
I love it when stores put down 30 % off, and Americans are too stupid to know how much that is, so they have tables that tell the new price.  Give me a break. 

May 19, 2012 2:46PM
I went to Payless with a friend once, and they had their "buy one pair, get one 1/2 off". I found one pair I wanted, and my friend could not figure out why I wouldn't get a second pair. I told her there isn't another pair I want, but if she wants one I'll check it out with mine and then she can pay me 1/2 its price. She seemed insulted and refused. I think I finally understand why after reading this article. She probably thought the second pair was free, and I was trying to make her pay for part of my pair! Thanks Donna -- that's bugged me for years. It wasn't me. It was her poor math skills :)
May 18, 2012 7:09AM
I always look at unit price for an item (of food) and have noticed lately that one item will be priced at x amount per pound, and the comparable item on the shelf will be priced at x amount per 100 or  x amount per ton (exaggertion) which makes it impossible at first glance to compare prices.  That's when I look at the amount in each package,  per price of each and figure which is the most cost effective.  I usually buy in bulk,  items which we use regularly, but even that I have noticed is not always the cheapest.  One thing I am sure of though, is that the price of goods is rising with no end in sight...  First packaging got smaller, even as prices began to rise, and now the games played with "specials" and "sales" is getting ridiculous!
May 18, 2012 1:19PM

I always read the unit price on the sticker on the store shelves. However I will use my calculator (on my phone) when there is no item unit price available.  Sometimes though I opt for a smaller (more expensive per unit item) if I don't use it that often, example mayo, it takes me forever to go through a mega jar of it.


I almost always will piggy back a coupon with a store sale.

I love math! therefore I work out my grocery or other shopping list four times to get the best "deal"

May 17, 2012 6:21PM

Walmart is notorious for bilking the customer with false illusions, in the store kinda like expensive items in the wrong place for cheaper knowing all to well what they are doing ..this is the same company using slogans like made in america knowing darn well it's a lie.


kmart right up along with them and so many others lying decieving these stores cant even take care of their own emplyees with good medical coverage, instead they live in the loop hole of making people work under required hours purposely,so they never qualify yet for years.I say we boycot these loosers let them know America is tired of the lies and the deception kroger publix the list is gynormas

Jul 19, 2012 3:17PM

I guess I'm lucky because math has always come naturally to me.  I never have to think twice about any type of advertised price. 


"Buy one, get one half off."  How could anyone not understand that?


But then, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  While I am excellent with numbers, I am a horrible speller.  If it wasn't for spell check, I would be lost.

May 18, 2012 9:19AM

I was going to buy some soda for a treat because of the pretty good price. But that price was only if you buy 4.

 I hate it when the print is too small for me to read that you have to buy 4 to get the good price. And then the shelf sale display was missing also.  I almost took it back because it wasn't a treat at twice the price and to say I felt the ad was misleading when it could only be read by someone with 20-10 vision. But I didn't, I guess I was too embarassed to do it.

Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.