‘Pink tax’ coming under fire
Women’s products costlier than men’s, research shows.
By TERI SFORZA
That adorable bike helmet for little boys, with the stuffed shark protruding from the top? It cost $14.99 at Target.
That adorable bike helmet for little girls, with the stuffed unicorn protruding from the top? It cost $27.99 at Target.
And so it goes for toys, clothing, shampoo and even adult diapers, according to a recent government investigation that is adding momentum to a push to outlaw so-called gender pricing on a wide array of consumer products in California.
Across several industries, items targeted for female consumers cost 7 percent more on average than nearly identical products marketed for male consumers, according to the examination of online and in-store prices by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs.
“(P)rice conscious female shoppers may not know that, for discounts, they need look no further than the men’s department,” the report said.
Consumer advocates call it the “pink tax,” a pricing disparity that follows women from cradle to grave and costs them thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetimes. The mounting data on the pink tax have become Exhibit 1 in a Sacramento drive to prohibit such differential pricing.
Senate Bill 899, sponsored by Consumer Federation of California, would extend the state’s ban on gender-based pricing for services (haircuts, laundry, dry cleaning) to products (toys, clothing, personal care items).
The bill, supported by a coalition of women’s, consumer and civil rights groups, sailed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-1 vote last week. The only dissenter was Orange County Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa.
“I believe we have a free market, and I believe that we’re not forced to purchase certain products,” Moorlach said. “You charge what the market will bear. If you don’t want to buy it, you don’t buy it. In retail, you price it for profit – supply and demand holds.”
The business-friendly California Chamber of Commerce has branded the bill a “job killer” and is pushing for its defeat. The California Retailers Association said it’s unworkable and will result in confusion, inaccurate pricing and increased costs.
Opponents also include the California Grocers Association, the New Car Dealers Association, the Toy Industry Association and the Civil Justice Association of California, which fears that the bill would open the floodgates to lawsuits, which would be consumers’ main avenue of redress under the bill.
The retailers’ group argues that product pricing depends on many, sometimes invisible, factors. They can include the costs of design, development, labor, packaging, shipping, tariffs, marketing and merchandising. And those costs often differ between products targeted for men and women, the association says.
The group’s members, including department, drug and grocery stores, don’t discriminate based on a person’s gender, said spokeswoman Margaret Gladstein.
“Do we price different items differently based on a variety of other factors? Absolutely.
“From store to store and day to day, prices change,” Gladstein said. “You could go to a Target and find that pink scooter at one price, then go to another Target down the road and find that same scooter on sale, based on the inventory and products that that store has available.
“What we’re trying to do is provide our customers with as many choices and as many products as possible. They can choose the least expensive option, or go to another store.”
Opponents warn that the bill, which would permit consumers to recover $4,000 in civil penalties for each pink vs. blue violation, would lead to a rash of legal demand letters from opportunists.
They draw ominous comparisons to what critics have called “legal extortion” encouraged by the federal American Disabilities Act. Using the act, they argue, attorneys have collected thousands of dollars in settlements from businesses to forgo lawsuits over lack of handicapped parking spaces or wheelchair access. Businesses in Brea and elsewhere grappled with such threats in recent years.
The California Chamber of Commerce argues that SB899 leaves retailers and grocers with stark choices: try to identify products specifically targeted at males and females and re-price substantially similar goods to an equal, higher amount; or simply increase the price of all substantially similar goods to the same, higher amount.
“Neither of these options are beneficial to the consumer,” the chamber wrote recently to lawmakers.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, said the pink tax is unfair and discriminatory and lawmakers must fix it.
“If this law is passed, it will change practices in California that will affect people’s lives, and will affect people’s pocketbooks, and will affect the products that they buy,” he said.
Hueso held two disposable razors aloft at the Senate Judiciary Hearing. Each was purchased in the same store at the same time, he said. Each was made by the same manufacturer, was of the same brand, and was identical in every respect – except that the one made for men was blue, and the one made for women was pink, he added.
“The men’s was $7.99 for a 12-pack,” Hueso said. “The women’s was $12.99. That’s a $5 markup, for the exact same product.”
At the same time, he said, he is working with the business groups to refine SB899’s language.
His bill already has been amended to clarify that similar razors of different brands would not have to be price-matched, but that the same razors from the same manufacturer of the same brand would.
Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation, said with exasperation that a Levi’s One Pocket Boyfriend Shirt has been marketed to women for $78. Their boyfriends, he said, could buy a nearly identical shirt for $48.
“Add the word ‘boyfriend’ and put the shirt on a woman, and the price goes up by $30,” Holober said. “Businesses have figured out, through a lot of research, how to extract extra dollars by giving products a veneer of being designed especially for girls or women. But that’s not right.”
Supporters of the Hueso bill include the American Civil Liberties Union of California, California Public Interest Research Group, the Older Women’s League Sacramento Capitol Chapter and Women’s Foundation of California.
“The combination of gender-based differences in consumer prices and the gender wage gap is a double-edged sword: Women face higher expenses than men and at the same time are paid less,” the Equal Rights Advocates group wrote in a letter of support to lawmakers.
“Women working full-time in California make an overall average of 84 cents on the dollar when compared to full-time working men, and the wage gaps are far worse for women of color. … This means that on top of losing $39 billion a year to the gender wage gap, Californian women and girls are collectively spending in excess of $41 billion more than boys and men to purchase things that everyone needs.”
The bill will advance to the full Senate and, if approved by the full body, will move to the Assembly. If it prevails there, it will proceed to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Hueso said the bill is the logical extension of California’s Gender Tax Repeal Act, a 1995 law making it illegal to discriminate against women in the pricing of services. It prohibits a dry cleaner from charging more to press a plain white shirt for a woman than to press a plain white shirt for a man. But the dry cleaner can charge more to press a shirt with ruffles or bows or beads, as it requires extra work.
That law hasn’t unleashed a flood of lawsuits, Hueso said. Supporters and opponents could point to fewer than five over the course of more than 20 years.
It’s time to include goods in the pink tax ban, Hueso said. “This bill will provide an additional tool to individuals fighting for their civil rights, to combat gender pricing of consumer goods,” he said.
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