Arrow-right Camera

Washington Voices

Front Porch: Bottom line: Americans love sales

I love it when retail companies get real.

In past year or so, a national chain has been using a lingerie model who is older than 30, and who has a fleshy middle and bit of tummy pooch. The contrast is striking between her and the taut waifs alongside her. Other chains use models with disabilities.

I remember a number of years ago when Lands’ End used their own employees as models in their catalog. It was a brilliant stroke, making it easy to see how the clothing would actually look on those of us not gifted with supermodel bodies, and it became painfully clear to me why pleated pants weren’t my best fashion choice.

Wow – real products on real people.

J.C. Penney executive chief Ron Johnson recently announced a revamp for Penney’s. He confessed that the company had been inflating prices to what he called “fake prices” for years in order to run constant sales promotions and steep markdowns, thus producing an overabundance of mailbox fliers, ads and coupons.

Although it’s hard to believe anyone was naïve about this tactic, weren’t you glad to see it publicly admitted? I was.

This kind of merchandizing is a hassle for consumers. But with the crazy economy over the past decade, desperate retailers have been forced into such constant steep sales that one almost has to make an effort to pay full price. We’ve been trained to expect and wait for exceptional buys, and play the discount game.

But where does the circular insanity end?

Penney’s “fake prices” announcement made me think of a walk last year through a mall in Orange County, Calif., that has many designer stores. I thought it might be fun to pick up something small, and figured a little leather credit card holder would be affordable. But my eyebrows practically whacked my hairline when I discovered that least expensive one was, with a “steep markdown,” about $60. None of these card holders were made with exotic leather and they were quite similar to ones carried by, say, J.C. Penney, where I got a nice one for free with a zippered change purse.

The cosmetics industry has, oddly, been discount-proof in department stores, and I often wonder why women haven’t rebelled, given nonsensical claims with pseudoscientific terms on overpriced ingredients found in low-priced potions elsewhere. After all, the most important wrinkle-preventer anyone can use is a sunscreen containing effective ingredients, every day of the year; antioxidants are good, too. Cost isn’t a factor in either.

Designer mystique and perceived value, alas, still hold powerful sway.

So kudos to Penney’s for their refreshing honesty.

While I admire the forthrightness and new tack, and hope it succeeds, I have to wonder if Penney’s hasn’t left a critical psychological factor out of the equation: we consumers love sales. It’s the hunter-gatherer in us. Making the kill, bagging that deal – it’s addictive.

Without steep discounts on inflated prices, how will I get that feeling of elation I had last year when I walked off with a $50 robe – in season – for $5? Or the heady thrill of playing sales and coupons together, prompting mental fist-pumps and gleeful declarations of “score!” to myself?

I hate to say it, but a simple storewide everyday low price may not compare.

It just doesn’t seem real.

You can reach Deborah Chan at Previous columns are available at columnists/.

Click here to comment on this story »