Symbolic Meanings of a Price Ending

Robert M. Schindler, Rutgers University - Camden
ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the possibility that the rightmost digits, or ending, of a price can carry connotations about various attributes of a product or retailer. A survey of hypothesized price-ending meanings is presented, and two types of causes of these meanings are proposed. A review of the empirical evidence supporting the role of these meanings suggests that it may be desirable for retailers to be more deliberate in their decisions concerning which price endings to use.
[ to cite ]:
Robert M. Schindler (1991) ,"Symbolic Meanings of a Price Ending", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 794-801.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 794-801


Robert M. Schindler, Rutgers University - Camden


This paper discusses the possibility that the rightmost digits, or ending, of a price can carry connotations about various attributes of a product or retailer. A survey of hypothesized price-ending meanings is presented, and two types of causes of these meanings are proposed. A review of the empirical evidence supporting the role of these meanings suggests that it may be desirable for retailers to be more deliberate in their decisions concerning which price endings to use.


There is a general awareness within marketing that price can serve an informational as well as allocative function (Rao 1984). However, virtually all of the research attention on price as an information cue has focused on what the price level can communicate about a product or retail outlet (e.g., Monroe and Krishnan 1985; Lichtenstein and Burton 1989; Oxenfeldt 1966, pp. 54-55; Scitovsky 1945).

What has not been adequately addressed is whether a price ending can also serve as a cue which communicates information about a product or retail outlet. A price's ending consists of one or all of the rightmost digits of a price and can be manipulated more or less independently of the level of the price. For example, the prices, $29.95 and $30.00, have different endings, but are at virtually the same level.

The goal of this paper is to describe more clearly how a price's ending may serve as a second means by which a price communicates information, and to summarize the existing thinking and research on the topic. First, price-ending meanings will be distinguished from other aspects of price endings which may affect the consumer, and the possibility of meaning effects will be placed into a theoretical context. Then the price-ending meanings which have been proposed will be reviewed, and possible causes of such meanings will be discussed. The paper will conclude with a brief summary of the empirical research which has been conducted on this issue to date.


In this review, a price ending will be said to have a meaning if it brings to the consumer's mind information or thoughts about the price or about a non-price attribute of the product or retailer. The primary concern here is meanings which are "symbolic," or context-independent. Thus, for example, the 99 ending of $49.99 may connote a discount, the 00 ending of $200 may connote high quality, and a 63 ending of $7.63 may connote a carefully determined price. In each case, the rightmost digits can be considered a separate unit of meaning which can be used strategically, in a wide variety of situations, to create an impression. In designing a price advertisement, a manager might use a meaningful price ending in the same way he or she might use any meaningful element of verbal copy.

The symbolic meaning of a price ending can be distinguished from any effect a price ending may have on the consumer's perception of the level of the price. . In particular, it has often been hypothesized that "odd prices," or prices which are just below a round number (e.g., $49.88, $49.95, and $49.99 are just below $50.00), are encoded by the consumer into a form which represents a lower price (e.g., Georgoff 1972, pp. 4-6; Lambert 1975; Schindler and Warren 1988; Simon 1989, p. 183). For example, consumers might think of the just-below price of $49.99 as "forty and some change," "forty-something," or even "around forty." This perceptual underestimation may be only fleeting, but sufficient to serve the purpose of attracting the consumer's attention to an advertisement (Whalen 1980), or it may occur only later when the price is recalled (Brenner and Brenner 1982; Schindler and Wiman 1989). But the various forms of this "underestimation hypothesis" have in common the postulation of an effect of price ending on the perceived level of a price.

Distinguishing meaning effects from underestimation effects raises the question of how the two types of price-ending effects may be related. They are not so closely related that they will necessarily occur together. For example, a consumer may take pains to avoid encoding $49.99 as "forty and something" and attend carefully to each of the digits, but may still have the connotations of "sale price" come to mind. And, it should be noted that the two types of effects are likely to have some very different causal factors, and thus may need to be managed very differently. But, as will be discussed below, it is likely that an effect of a price ending on the perceived level of the price will play a role in causing that ending to have a meaning to consumers, and thus there may be a tendency for the two effects to co-occur.

The symbolic meaning of a price ending can also be distinguished from effects of price ending which are dependent on a particular price or advertisement. For example, it appears from the use of prices such as $66.66 and $333 in price advertising that retailers may use the rightmost digits of a price to emphasize, and perhaps call attention to, the leftmost digit. While it is plausible that the rightmost digits may add some emphasis, this would not be considered a meaning effect since the effect of the rightmost digits would be dependent on their following certain leftmost digits and would not occur out of that context.

The price-ending meanings which are the concern of this paper are those which are understood by the consumer. It has been reported (e.g., Calogero 1982) that retailers will sometimes use price endings as a means of coding information such as whether the item is a special purchase which is not reorderable or is from a regular vendor. In such cases, price endings have meanings which are interpretable within the retailing organization, but which are almost certain to be impenetrable to the consumer.


Convincing evidence that price endings have meanings which affect consumer behavior would contribute to our understanding of how the consumer responds to price. It would tell us that the informational function of price involves more than just the level of a price, and would bear on the nature of those inevitable wrinkles in demand curves known as "price points." In addition, it would tell us that concepts such as region of indifference, latitude of acceptance, and just noticeable difference (e.g., Monroe and Petroshius 1981) are of limited value in assessing price response. If a price change which is well within consumers' region of indifference happens to change the price ending to one of a very different meaning, then a sales change could in fact result.

It is of course likely that the size of a sales change resulting from a change in the meaning of a price ending alone would rarely be more than modest. But even if careful management of price-ending meanings results in a sales increase as small as one percent, this could still represent an important opportunity for the retailer. Such a small increase in sales could have a much greater effect on profits, especially since the costs of managing price endings are likely to be quite low and the effects of identifying the best meanings for the situations which usually occur are likely to be long-lasting.


The compilation of price-ending meanings which is presented below is based on a survey of published materials and on informal conversations with a wide variety of retailers and consumers. What is recorded here are hypotheses, speculations, and opinions about the meanings that price endings may have. These proposed meanings can be divided into two broad categories: (1) those concerning price, and (2) those concerning nonprice attributes of the product or retail outlet.

Meanings Concerning Price

It has often been hypothesized that a just-below price ending connotes that the price is low (Bliss 1952; Dodds and Monroe 1985). The consumer might interpret this as low relative to competition (i.e., the "lowest price around"), or low with respect to costs (i.e., "lowest price possible"; Mason and Mayer 1990, p. 443). These low-price connotations of advertised products might also give the impression that the retail outlet in general is low-priced (Nagle 1987, p. 249).

Two related price-ending meanings which have been hypothesized for just-below price endings concern how the price may have changed recently. The first is the frequent proposal that just-below pricing suggests that the price has been reduced, perhaps from the next higher round-number price (Alpert 1971, p. 112; Beckman and Davidson 1967, p. 501; Friedman 1967; Knauth 1949; Kreul 1982). The second is the possibility that a justbelow price connotes one which has not been recently increased (Schindler 1984).

It is commonly suggested that a just-below price ending connotes a sale or discount price (Berman and Evans 1986, p. 453; Kotler 1988, p 211; Kreul 1982; Nagle 1987, p. 249; Raphel 1968; Simon 1989, p. 183). A sale or discount price would differ from other recently decreased prices in that the price is expected to be temporary, either because the price will later be returned to its pre-discount level, or because the product will no longer be available at that retail outlet. Although it is usually suggested that all just-below price endings may carry the connotation of being a sale price, some authors (Alpert 1971, pp. 112-3; Lewison and DeLozier 1986, p. 591) have implied that prices which end in the digits 3 or 7 are more strongly associated with discounts (or suggest larger discounts) than prices which end in the digits 5, 8, and 9. The ad in the Figure appears to have been designed with this possibility in mind.

As one would expect, the hypotheses that just-below price endings connote low, decreased, or discount prices also suggest that round-number prices (i.e., primarily prices with one or more 0's =in the rightmost digits) may connote that the price is high, recently increased, or is the full, "regular" price. It has even been suggested that just-below prices have become so common that some consumers may interpret a round-number price as involving, say, a 5-cent "surcharge" over the corresponding 95-ending price (Whalen 1980).

It is sometimes believed that the use of price endings which appear random are interpreted by consumers as the result of a more precise and careful pricing process. For example, Sears has recently been advertising prices with a mixture of unusual endings such as 17, 67, 82, and 31 in order to give consumers the impression of "having priced more sharply" (i.e., having reduced the price as much as possible). Also, since wholesale prices use a wider mix of endings than retail prices (Friedman 1967), unusual endings may also be used to support the claim that a retailer's prices are fair because they result from a fixed markup on costs or to support a claim that a retailer is offering certain items at wholesale prices.

Consistent with this is the possibility that round-number prices may give the impressions that they are the result of a quick and somewhat careless pricing process. This may lead consumers to believe the stated price is only a starting price and that it can be negotiated downward. On the other hand, this connotation of round-number prices could support the claim that the retailer has slashed prices impulsively and with abandon in his or her impatience to get rid of the product, and thus the prices represent unusually good values.



The last two price-ending meanings which communicate information about the price concern the commonness of prices ending in 95 and 99 cents. The first is that these endings have become synonymous with the higher even-dollar amount, and thus will be less effective in connoting a low price than the less common endings of 96 and 97. The second is that consumers tend to see prices using these common endings as "correct" and therefore more desirable (Gabor and Granger, 1964: Monroe 1990, p. 48).

Meanings Concerning Non-Price Attributes of the Product or Retailer

It has been hypothesized that just-below price endings carry connotations of low quality (Kreul 1982). These connotations may correspond to the types of low quality that consumers believe goes along with low or discount prices (such as being leftovers or out-of-date items), or may simply involve an impression of the features that are normally used to judge products in that category. It has also been suggested that if a retailer's use of just-below pricing is not limited to sale items, that the low-quality connotations of these prices may affect consumer expectations about the quality of all of the items available from that retail outlet.

It is also possible that at least some consumers interpret just-below prices as an attempt by the retailer to be sneaky, slick, or simply not willing to "play it straight" (Calogero 1982). One related possibility is that they consider just-below prices a sign of tackiness or lack of sophistication. A second related possibility is that the consistent use of any single price ending (other than 00) might suggest to the consumer that the marketer is using price ending as an influence tool and thus arouse some suspicion.

As one might expect from the hypothesis that just-below prices may connote low quality, round-number price endings have been hypothesized to indicate high quality (Wingate, Schaller, and Miller 1972, p. 122). Consumers may attribute this higher quality to only those items advertised with a round-number price, or they may attribute it to all of the items offered by the retail outlet (Nagle 1987, p. 249).

It has often been hypothesized that prices with round-number endings contribute to giving a store or product an image of classiness (Spohn and Allen 1977, p. 188), sophistication (Raphel 1968), prestige (Alpert 1971, p. 112), or "a touch of dignity" (Feinberg 1962). Such meanings may be communicated in prices under $100 simply by leaving out the cents digits entirely. This might lead the consumer to infer that the store, and the customers who shop there, are above even thinking about pennies. For fashion products such as clothing or perfume, round-number endings might also communicate a high-fashion image (Bolen 1982, p. 228; Whalen 1980).

It is also possible that a particular price ending may become associated with a particular retail outlet so that its use enhances the retailer's distinctiveness in the minds of consumers. Such a "signature" price ending may be whimsical in origin; for example, for many years the Lechmere stores in the Boston area used 88 endings in their price advertising simply because the flagship store had the address "88 1st Street." Or, the price ending may be consistent with the store's theme, such as with the Dollar General chain's distinctive use of even-dollar prices (Bolen 1982, p. 228).

Finally, it may be possible to use price endings to communicate a "fun" image. For example, the repeated use of a very unusual ending such as 71 might suggest a certain playfulness on the part of the retailer. Or, a flyer from a charity which talks about its ambitious goals for 1989, and then asks for a contribution of $19.89 may communicate a high-spiritedness that many consumers could find attractive.

Summary of Hypothesized Price-Ending Meanings

This survey of hypothesized price-ending meanings has generated the fourteen possibilities described above. These are summarized in Table 1. Rather than an exhaustive list, this collection of possible meanings should be considered as a starting point for future research on the topic. The focus of this work should be on the investigation of the factors which may cause price endings to have meaning to the consumer and the empirical determination of whether each of these meanings indeed exists and what effect it may have on consumer decision making.


Consideration of these fourteen hypothesized price-ending meanings suggests two general types of causal mechanisms which may be involved. Each carries somewhat different implications about what meanings to look for among a particular group of consumers at a particular time or place, how to test for these meanings, and how these meaningful price endings may be used to communicate with consumers.

The first type of causal mechanism is simple association. For example, if the lower prices in a market are indeed more likely to have just-below endings than the higher prices, then one would expect consumers to learn this correlation over the course of their shopping experience. The results of at least one price survey (see Table 2) suggest that such correlations may in fact exist (Hawkins, Best, and Coney 1989, p. 576).





Since the learning of such correlations may well be "incidental" or low-involvement learning, it may never produce clearly formulated beliefs which the consumer could retrieve from memory. Thus, the possibility of such a mechanism suggests that measurement of price-ending meanings not rely solely on asking consumers what a particular price ending means to them. Rather, research should also include designing a set of price ads or displays which differ only in price ending and then questioning separate sets of consumers about each one.

If such learning of price-ending correlations is an important determinant of price-ending meanings, then one would expect that changes over time in the way a price ending is used would result in changes in the meanings which consumers perceive that price ending to have. Consistent with this is the observation that the meanings of just-below price endings to American consumers have changed over the last 100 years (Georgoff 1972, pp. 14-15). In the 19th Century, just-below price endings symbolized high quality, since such endings were used most often for imported goods, which were typically of higher quality than domestically made items. By the 1930's, these endings were most often used in low or discount prices, and thus began to be associated with such prices and the retailers who tended to offer them.

Of course, considering the correlation between a certain type of price ending and a certain type of price or product as a cause of price-ending meaning begs the question of more basic cause: what are the factors that cause the correlation to occur in the first place? In the case of the correlation between just-below endings and low or discount prices, it is likely that retailers' beliefs (whether true or not) that consumers will underestimate the levels of just-below prices caused them to choose these endings in situations where a low price or a discount was an important selling point. In this sense, the possibility that consumers may underestimate just-below prices can be said to be a cause of just-below price endings connoting low or discount prices. And this interrelation would explain why both meaning and underestimation explanations of hypothesized price-ending effects often predict similar effects.

The second type of mechanism which may cause price endings to acquire meaning is that consumers may develop "schemer schemas" (Wright 1986), or intuitive theories, about why particular price endings are used. For example, consumer curiosity about why a price ending such as 31 is used could lead to the schema or theory that price endings which seem random must result from a very careful and precise price-setting process and that the retailer takes the trouble to be so careful in order to give the consumer the lowest price possible.

Schemer schemas might well enrich the meanings of price endings which have acquired meanings through the associational mechanism. For instance, if just-below endings have come, through association, to mean low prices, the schema that low price can be offered only at the expense of quality could lead just-below endings to develop a low-quality meaning also. However, schemer schemas might be particularly likely to be important determinants of price-ending meaning for endings which are unusual or for which there are no obvious meanings. It is these which are most likely to arouse consumers' theorizing about the price-setter's motivations.

In contrast to the associational mechanism, the schemer-schema mechanism of meaning development would respond to a more direct means of measurement. Rather than comparing the responses of different consumers to the same price with different endings, consumers' intuitive theories could best be investigated by showing consumers a variety of price endings and directly questioning them about their theories concerning the reasons why each price ending is used.

Price-ending meanings acquired through incidental learning of correlations which occur in the marketplace are likely to be more difficult to change than meanings acquired through schemer schemas. To change consumers' associations would require providing long-term repeated exposure to price endings in the context of the to-be-learned price, product, or store attributes. By contrast, it may be possible to change consumers' intuitive theories by persuasively suggesting alternative explanations, or "undermines" (Kirmani and Wright 1989), in advertising copy. For example, the claim that a retailer can offer high quality at low prices because of volume buying may lead consumers to modify the schema that low price must be an indication of low quality.


Considering the amount of speculation concerning price-ending meanings which has reached print, it is surprising that there is so little published empirical investigation of whether or not such meanings exist in the minds of consumers. One of the first detailed report of evidence that price endings can have meanings to consumers came out of a study of whether or not price ending affects the ability of consumers to recognize whether a price has recently been increased (Schindler 1984). It was found that consumers' overall recognition accuracy was lower when prices were presented with 99 or 98 endings than when they were presented with 00 endings. But it was also found that subjects showed a bias toward judging that the prices with the just-below endings were ones which had not been increased. This suggests that, when memory failed to provide the needed information, the subjects' responses were guided by an impression that prices with 99 or 98 endings are the type of prices which are less likely to have been recently increased.

Dodds and Monroe (1985) reported a more direct test of meaning effects of just-below pricing. They provided subjects with a description of a portable cassette player which either did or did not include a brand name, and which was displayed with either a high, medium, or low price which had either a 95 or round-number ending. They found no effect of price ending on perceived quality of the product. However, they reported evidence that, for the situation when the price was at the middle level and no brand identity was provided, the just-below ending caused the product to be perceived as a better value. Since value is a function of price as well as quality, this result may have been due to low-price connotations of the 95 ending of the price.

Schindler and Kibarian (1989) tested for meaning effects of just-below pricing in a situation similar to that in which Dodds and Monroe found evidence of some effect. They selected price advertisements from out-of-town newspapers and altered the ads so that one version showed prices with 99 endings and the other version showed the corresponding 00-ending prices. Because the subjects were unfamiliar with the stores in the out-of-town ads and because the prices were kept very close to the original prices in the ad, the conditions of this experiment approximated Dodds and Monroe's no-brand-information, middle price-level condition.

Schindler and Kibarian found that the justbelow price ending increased consumers' likelihood of judging that the advertised prices were the lowest prices around and increased their likelihood of judging that the prices had not recently been increased. Thus, they confirmed the findings of the two previous studies. Further, they found that the prices with 99 endings were more likely to be judged as sale prices than the prices with 00 endings, and that the 00 endings increased their likelihood of rating the quality of the items advertised as "above average."

A fourth study (Schindler 1989) differs from the previous three in that it tested the effect of price endings on actual sales rather than consumers' responses to questionnaire items. A split-run test was conducted with the 24-page winter sale catalog of a direct-mail women's clothing retailer. A randomly selected sample of thirty thousand customers received a version of the catalog printed with all prices ending in the digits 00. A second sample of thirty thousand customers received a version of the catalog printed with all prices ending with the digits 99. A third sample of thirty thousand customers received a version of the catalog printed with all prices ending with the digits 88. After three months, the gross dollar sales for the 99-ending catalog was 10% higher than that for the 00-ending catalog. However, the business generated by the 88-ending catalog was virtually the same as that of the 00-ending catalog (even though each price was 12 cents lower!).

The important result of this study is not to provide evidence for any particular set of price-ending meanings, but to support the general idea that price-ending meanings can affect sales. Meaning effects clearly could have caused the obtained pattern of results; for example, the 00-ending catalog may have suggested regular prices, the 88-ending catalog may have suggested low prices without being on sale (and thus low quality could be inferred), and the 99 endings may have connoted a genuine sale. In contrast, it is difficult to imagine how this pattern of results could have been produced by underestimation effects alone. If the 99-ending prices performed better than the 00-ending prices because the consumers dropped off one or more of the rightmost digits and thus underestimated the levels of these prices, then one would expect them to have also done so with the 88-ending prices. Thus this study, while remaining mute on the specific meanings involved, does provide empirical support for the idea that price-ending meanings can affect consumer response.


The symbolic meaning which a price ending may evoke in the minds of consumers is a possible cause of price-ending effects, and is one which is distinguishable from any tendency consumers may have to underestimate the level of just-below prices. Although a rich array of price-ending meanings have been hypothesized, the process of systematically testing for the presence of these meanings has only just begun. However, the initial results are promising, and suggest that managerial decisions about price endings need not be governed solely by intuition, tradition, or imitation of competitors. With the benefits of further research, all marketers may be able to use price endings in a more deliberate way, as a versatile tool to more effectively communicate with consumers.


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