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Why you should always buy the men’s version of almost anything

Soap tends to be pricier for women. But why? (Photo courtesy of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs)

Radio Flyer sells a red scooter for boys and a pink scooter for girls. Both feature plastic handlebars, three wheels and a foot brake. Both weigh about five pounds.

The only significant difference is the price, a new report reveals. Target listed one for $24.99 and the other for $49.99.

The scooters' price gap isn't an anomaly. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs 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.

DCA Commissioner Julie Menin, who launched the investigation this summer, said the numbers show an insidious form of gender discrimination. Compounding the injustice, she said, is the wage gap. Federal data shows women in the United States earn about 79 cents for every dollar paid to men.

“It’s a double whammy,” Menin said, “and it’s not just happening in New York. You see in the aisles the issue is clearly applicable to consumers across the country.”

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A Target spokesperson said the company lowered the price of the pink scooter after the report was released Friday, calling the discrepancy a "system error." (The retailer blamed the same kind of glitch last year after catching heat for selling black Barbies at more than double the price of white Barbies.)

When asked about the price differences of other gendered toys — like the Raskullz shark helmet ($14.99) and the Raskullz unicorn helmet ($27.99) or the Playmobil pirate ship ($24.99) and the Playmobil fairy queen ship ($37.99) —  the representative pointed to a company statement, declining to elaborate: "Our competitive shop process ensures that we are competitively priced in local markets. A difference in price can be related to production costs or other factors."

Researchers for the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs pored over toys, children’s clothing, adult apparel, personal care products and home goods sold in the city. The largest price discrepancy emerged in the hair care category: Women, on average, paid 48 percent more for goods like shampoo, conditioner and gel. Razor cartridges came in second place, costing female shoppers 11 percent more.

Bye, bye, bananas

Walgreens, for example, peddled a blue box of Schick Hydro 5 cartridges for $14.99. The Schick Hydro “Silk,” its purple sibling, was priced at $18.49.

Across the New York sample, women’s products carried higher price tags 42 percent of the time, while men’s products cost more 18 percent of the time.

Boosting prices according to who's buying is nothing new. Hairdressers often charge women more. Nightclubs sometimes demand more cash from men for admission.

Price discrimination on the whole tends to be worse for women, though. A 1994 report from the State of California found they pay an annual “gender tax” of $1,351 for the same services rendered to men.

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Women spend an average of 25 percent more on haircuts (that require the same amount of labor as a men’s style) and 27 percent more for the laundering of a white cotton shirt, a 2002 DCA study showed.

Another analysis from the University of Central Florida found women’s deodorants typically cost 30 cents more than the same product for men. Wrote the authors,“The only discernible difference was scent.”

The pricing differences extend beyond basic services and goods. Until courts knocked the practice down, insurance companies in Europe charged women more because women live longer. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies in the United States cannot factor gender into cost.

New York City law has banned gender discrimination the pricing of services since 1998. Businesses cannot legally charge more for haircuts or dry cleaning, for example, based on the patron’s sex. They must instead offer gender-neutral rates by labor intensity.

That doesn’t mean local companies always follow the rules. DCA inspectors issued 129 violations for gender pricing of services this year, compared to 118 in 2014.

California and Florida's Miami-Dade County also prohibit selling the same services to men and women at different prices. No federal law, though, requires businesses to set gender-equal prices on products. New York City’s report was released to heighten consumer awareness, Menin said, and to publicly shame companies with glaring disparities.

Of the 24 retailers in the New York City report, the worst gender pricing disparity surfaced at Club Monaco, where women’s clothing cost an average of 28.9 percent more than men’s clothing, according to an independent analysis by economist Ian Ayres. Urban Outfitters trailed with a 24.6 percent gender premium, followed by Levis with 24.3 percent.

The retailers did not respond to the Post's request for comment.

In 1991, Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, sent men and women to car dealerships across the Chicago area. He learned female testers were charged significantly more than male testers. A white woman was asked to pay a 40 percent higher markup than the male testers, supporting the stereotype that dealers assume women knew less about car values. A black woman was asked to pay a markup three times higher.

Gender equality has improved considerably since Ayres’s paper was published — so why do blatant price disparities persist today? “One contributing factor is profitability,” he said. “You’re pulling an extra dollar out of a certain group of consumers.”

Companies might be exploiting the idea that female shoppers are willing to spend more money than their male counterparts, he said.

Of course, a woman’s sweater might be crafted with nicer fabrics. A man’s sweater might be stitched with cheaper polyester. But that often isn't the case. Frequently, the only difference between two products is color.

“Those prices aren’t being driven by costs,” Ayres said, “but just because you take advantage of certain groups but not others.”

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."

*A misread of Ayres' findings has been corrected. 

Dig Deeper: Consumer Culture + Gender

Want to explore more about how gender plays into what we buy? Check out our curated list of stories below.

Here’s why things cost more for women

Items marketed to women and girls cost 7 percent more on average than similar products targeting men and boys. 

The history of how shopping liberated middle-class women

Shopping gave 19th-century middle-class women the chance to be a part of urbanization without male chaperones, which caused a scandal. 

Understanding how grocery stores adapt to male shoppers

Researchers are advising grocers how to adapt their stores to men, like labeling sections so they’re more mission oriented. Think “lunchbox essentials” versus “bread.”

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