An analysis of gender price discrimination can be done either on webshops (easier) or directly by comparison shopping among the stores in any given city (more challenging). Our target this time is Lisbon – the city of seven hills, in Portugal, and the western-most capital in Europe. Lisbon is said to be a metropolis that is not expensive for tourists but is very costly for locals.
“The prices here (ed. Lisbon) are fixed and controlled, and gender isn’t an issue that matters when you are buying something”, states Antonio Correia, the voice of the União Geral de Consumidores (General Union of Consumers) of Portugal, somehow surprised that this question has even been asked. At a first glance in Lisbon’s shop windows, Mr. Correira would seem to be right. But let’s have a better look.
Overpricing products – cosmetics for women and clothes for men
The denial above from the Union of Consumers is actually a reference to an apparently sensitive topic in the Portuguese market. For instance, after repeated attempts and relaunches, it was impossible to get an official statement from a representative of the very prominent shopping center Armazéns do Chiado. Gender price discrimination is, however, one of its daily duties.
At a very spacious cosmetics counter in a highly rated store at Armazéns do Chiado, Sara and Natalia are waiting for customers. Sara knows very well what price discrimination looks like and takes me to the men’s counter nearby. A multi-corrective cream for women in a purple pot costs €62 while the same version for men (except the pot’s blue color and a stronger smell) is €43. Wait a second! The comparison for a face cleanser is a less striking example, but still impressive: €28 for the women’s version while the men’s one is €20. Proud of their customer niche, Sara is very comfortable with providing explanations: “Women are more educated than men about many products. Many of them buy for instance the eye cream recovery for men which is less expensive (€30.50 compared to €45) and basically the same”.
In another cosmetics store, close to the Atrium Saldanha complex this time, Manuela highlights the frequency of female customers compared to men. Each product is around €10, and it wouldn’t be easy to find two similar products. “Men have less choice; they just buy something and leave. Look at the women’s variety of shampoos and shower gels. Finally, I think women spend much more money because they think they need to care about every single detail. But it is all about marketing”, reckons Manuela.
And marketing is also the explanation coming from Susana Martins Santos, Director of External Relations at the El Corte Ingles shopping center. Ms. Santos doesn’t deny that women are basically willing to pay more than men, which obviously can influence marketing techniques, especially in cosmetics clinics. But in El Corte Ingles, “none of the campaigns we have discriminate either positively or negatively based on the gender issue. The price is not determined that way except for promotions”, Ms. Santos tries to assure us.
Clothing seems to be on the opposite side of the issue. The huge variety of clothes for women implies lower prices (sometimes also lower quality) than for men. Catarina has been a saleslady for the last four years in the same multi-brand women’s store, on a hilly street in the crowded Baixa-Chiado area. “For low priced clothes, in every store around here, women will pay less by a factor of €3 to €7 than men, and they have a lot of promotions, all through the year. When buying clothing of higher quality, there will be even bigger differences. I wish it could be equal after all”, states Catarina. A few streets away the same store has a section for men – and prices are indeed higher, as Catarina indicated.
As for retailers, an expert who desired to remain anonymous explains that with two big supermarket names, some monopoly power exists. Two major retailers are well known in Lisbon, and apparently they have the power to set prices for their related stores. In these two supermarkets, the first assumption about gender discrimination would be the product identification. It may seem weird, but at the cosmetic stands you can rarely find men’s products. Discounts are however available for a few products, at about 15-20%.
Flip-flops, haircuts and second-hand stores
Summer has arrived, so get off to the beach! In a store specialized in flip-flops in the city center, prices are weirdly positioned: a pair of men’s flip flops is €23.90; women would pay €25-29.90; and both parents for their child would pay €19.90. So maybe it is not so bad to wear a big size for shoes. A one-kid couple is checking the prices carefully in the store and finally decides not to buy this time.
Gender price discrimination doesn’t obtain only with products, but also services. In Lisbon, if you are going to a stylist, high prices are understandable, but when going to a regular haircut salon or barber, discrepancies might surprise you a lot. While a man could pay €10 for a short haircut, a woman is expected to pay double even if her hair length is essentially the same as a man’s.
Other places seem to seek to maintain gender identity: women are not allowed inside Figaro’s barbershop in Lisbon because men might be uncomfortable speaking about certain issues around women. This is discrimination based on sex in access to goods and services. And Figaro is not alone. Trying to ask for a regular haircut for a woman in a barbaeria, the person in charge was very surprised: “You can ask my boss, but he’s not here right now”.
The more sophisticated esthetic salons, probably like everywhere, offer a very diverse list of services both for women and men. And there is even some interest from men in some places, especially for capillary hair treatment – often advertised on the shopfront by handsome young men with plenty of hair… And hair coloring is more expensive for men at €29 while women will pay €25 without consideration for the length of their hair.
As for second-hand or charity stores, most of them call themselves vintage, and proclaim objectives related to economic and social development. Women’s clothes are usually predominant, and prices are very low. “The thing is that men don’t like to waste time while searching for a good shirt at a low price. Their wives usually come and also buy from the men’s area. I wouldn’t say that there is price discrimination, buying a second hand article means that people are sick of overpricing in regular stores”, says Maria, a young saleslady in the second hand boutique of an international chain.
The connoisseurs of the gender-based pricing issue describe the fairness gap using the phrase “pink tax” in reference to the women’s pink razors which are more expensive than the blue ones used by men. Lisbon is not free of gender price discrimination – it hides it well, although the differences may appear when buying. Gendered disparities in pricing goods and services are illegal, but apparently not yet taken into consideration by consumer rights bodies.