Is Pink-flation a legitimate complaint?

Is Pink-flation a legitimate complaint? December 27, 2015

Yes, that’s my attempt to coin a term, not the author’s usage, but here’s a Wonkblog piece that got picked up in the Tribune under syndication:  “Why you should always buy the men’s version of almost anything.”

The claim of the article:  products made for or marketed to women — from pink vs. red Radio Flyer wagons to razors to clothing — are more expensive than those made for/marketed to men, or marketed generically.

The author linked to a study by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, which

compared nearly 800 products with female and male versions — meaning they were practically identical except for the gender-specific packaging — and uncovered a persistent surcharge for one of the sexes. Controlling for quality, items marketed to girls and women cost an average 7 percent more than similar products aimed at boys and men.

After providing examples, and further comparisons to services such as haircuts and insurance, the author then provides some context and rationale:

Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management, said how we perceive “women’s” products could help explain why gender markups persist in the marketplace.

“Many men’s products are not seen as men’s products,” he said. “They might just be seen as products in the category.”

Which makes the “pink” version a specialty product, he said. “His” and “hers” items likely stemmed from a retailer’s embrace of gender stereotypes, but our appetites for personally tailored goods could have kept the distinction alive.

“People see a greater fit between the product and their tastes,” Dhar said, “and may be willing to pay more.”

So I looked at the study website.

With respect to some of the products, it honestly makes a lot of sense for women’s prices to be higher:  clothes that are more fitted and have more detailing and styling,for example; and beauty products touting greater “moisturizing,” anti-aging, and other properties (think of a man’s shampoo, designed to clean hair, and a woman’s shampoo, which claims to smooth and/or volumize hair).

Other items, well, there’s no reason based solely on the product differences for two sets of hooded baby blankets to be priced differently, solely because one set has “boy” prints and the other “girl” prints, as figure 13 in the PDF report shows.  What’s behind this?  It makes no sense to label this “discrimination” in the sense of creating penalties for women, as these products are hardly purchased by their immediate recipients, boy and girl children, but parents pay the cost in any case, and even single mothers are equally likely to have sons or daughters.  Perhaps in some cases, there are volume/manufacturing issues, as when there are fewer pink than red Radio Flyer scooters sold, so the per-item manufacturing cost is higher.  And perhaps in other cases, there is “price discrimination” in the classic sense, of pricing girl-targeted items higher because mothers are more willing to pay higher prices for “cute” things for their girl than their boy babies, and girls are more likely to prize, say, a “Frozen”-themed backpack, than a boy would a Transformers one.

In any case, should this be “fixed” by more legislation?  No, of course not.  But there certain seems to be value in a study such as this, simply to remind consumers not to be sucked in by marketing, and to be careful about comparing prices.

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