What were you thinking?: Expensive shampoos

Dalaise Michaelis in the shower with expensive shampoo on his hair.

Dalaise Michaelis's "after" photo.


Tess Vigeland: I'm a firm believer in small luxuries -- good olive oil, pedicures, indulgences that look ridiculous on the bottom line. But there is a lot to be said for the occasional splurge. Still, all of us draw that line somewhere. And when we heard that colleagues here at Marketplace were spending $20, even $30 on shampoo, we just had to ask... What were you thinking?: Our look at why we do what we do with our money.

Our index case for this phenomenon is 29-year-old web producer Dalasie Michaelis.

Dalasie Michaelis: All right, the water's in my hair.

Who proudly spends 28 bucks a pop for 16 ounces of a shampoo called Wen. How do I know this? I visited him at home in the shower this week.

Michaelis: I think they wanted to shill more product. They tell you to put, like, six pumps per section of your head, so your product runs out faster and you have to buy more sooner.

Vigeland: So how much money do you think is on your head right now?

Michaelis: Probably $1.50, maybe $2. Oh God, why'd you put it that way?

Um, cause you volunteered. He claims he used cheap stuff until his girlfriend introduced him to this brand.

Michaelis: And once I tried it, I was like, God, where has this been all my life? I don't know how long I can keep afford buying this stuff, but we'll see.

And why did girlfriend, 40-year-old Mika Larson buy this shampoo in the first place?

Mika Larson: Ooh, that's really embarrassing.

Not any more than holding a microphone up to a shower curtain.

Larson: Late-night advertisement that was just so compelling I just had to try it.

Vigeland: Was there any element of if it's that expensive, it must be good?

Larson: Well, there's a little part of you that thinks that.

Vigeland: Probably more than a little. And so we bid farewell to the shower and hello to Erica Okada, marketing professor at the University of Hawaii. Welcome.

Erica Okada: Thank you very much.

Vigeland: So how crazy is it to buy a $50 bottle of shampoo versus a $5 shampoo. I mean, is there any logic going on here whatsoever?

Okada: There are probably two explanations for why people would go for the $50 shampoo when there is a $5 shampoo right next to it. One is it's probably for the same reason that suppose you got sick while you were traveling. And you see an advertisement in the Yellow Pages and it says, "I'm the cheapest doctor." Would you go to that doctor?

Vigeland: Uh, nope.

Okada: People infer quality from price when they don't know anything else. I'm not saying that shampoo is the equivalent of medical services. But there are many things about shampoo that have that same kind of quality. Is your hair frizzy in spite of the shampoo that you're using or is your hair nice and silky because of the shampoo that you're using?

Vigeland: Why do we associate a higher price with a higher quality?

Okada: It's because consumers assume that the marketplace is, over a long enough period of time, fair. Prices are high for a reason, and so a high price, they infer to be a signal for high quality. Another reason, I think, is also based on trying to prevent regret later on.

Vigeland: Let me guess now, this is the, "OK. I'm having a bad hair day, because I bought that cheap shampoo."

Okada: Yes. And so knowing that you bought the $50 shampoo and your hair is frizzy anyway, at least you'll know that you've done everything that you could to prevent the frizziness. So many purchases are made based on the motivation to minimize any future regret.

Vigeland: Are these choices that we're making informed? Do we generally go ahead and buy the expensive shampoo because we have tried a less expensive one and it didn't work, or are we simply doing that on faith?

Okada: That people make a purchased decision based on experience, I don't think is that interesting from a researcher's perspective because that's just common sense.

Vigeland: But surely there must be times when we are informed and we know that there's really no difference, and yet we're still buying the more expensive one for some reason.

Okada: Yes, and studies have shown that even when consumers know that a particular product attribute -- and one of the specific examples that they used in the study was silkiness as a product attribute for a shampoo. Consumers know that just because there's silk extract in the shampoo doesn't necessarily make your hair more silky. But in spite of that, they're willing to pay a premium for it. So the previous study has actually only documented that phenomenon and I'm actually doing some follow-up study on that to see why they do that. And my hypothesis is that they want to minimize regrets.

Vigeland: May I ask how much you spend on shampoo?

Okada: I go to Costco and I buy the Pantene shampoo there. So I guess it's like a medium-price product. Certainly not $50.

Vigeland: Erica Okada teaches marketing at the University of Hawaii. Thanks so much for joining us, it's been fun.

Okada: Thank you.

Dalaise Michaelis's "after" photo.

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I am buying the "Hair One" tomorrow! Thanks for the comment from S B and Adina Lav!

I am also a hairstylist and know that commercial products are lower quality ingredients and you get more water in them. Most commercial products are also high in alkaline while salon products are closer to acid levels on the ph scale. Our bodies are more on the acid side and so cheap products ruin hair, but make it feel ok by coating it to give it a soft feel. Hair is dead and no way to "fix" it, just care for it and you will be fine. The salon stuff is worth it.

Tess, WEN by Chaz Dean might not have been the best "shampoo" to pick on for your story. It's not actually shampoo. It cleans hair, yes. A shampoo, no. It's a cleansing conditioner. Different product, different market. It does *not* lather, contains no soap, is the consistency of conditioner, and you're not supposed to wash your hair every day when you're using it. In fact, their tag line is "Friends don't let friends use shampoo."

It was originally created by Chaz Dean, a Hollywood stylist known for his color work, because he was fed up with his clients coming in a month later with all the color he so diligently put in having been stripped out by shampoo. WEN was created in his kitchen with the express purpose keeping hair the way it left the salon and returning it to the natural condition you were born with.

For me, WEN actually *saves* me money every month. I used to have to get my hair recolored and highlighted every 4 weeks. Using WEN, after 12 months my hair is the same color as when I left the salon. Now we just touch up the roots every 7-8 weeks. My hair color used to be ~$150/month. Now, averaged, it's ~$50 because it's every other month and much less work for my stylist. Saves me a good hour of salon time too!

Also, using WEN, most people can wash their hair less w/o it looking oily. Chaz recommends folks w/ short hair was every other day. Folks w/ long (shoulder length or longer) hair only once or twice a week. I was mine every other day since I sweat like crazy at night.

WEN makes it possible to get their product more economically. They sell it on QVC in large sizes, for a substantial discount over the retail/infomercial cost per ounce. Once a year they sell gallon sizes of it for ~60% less per ounce than retail. Chaz does not want WEN to be an elitist product. He even gives out his office phone number to people on Facebook so they can call and get help using the product right.

Why is animal testing of shampoo bad? Don't they end up with soft, clean fur/hair regardless? As long as they don't get it in their eyes, what's the harm? And regarding some of the comments above; anyone who works in a hair salon and SELLS expensive shampoo is sort of biased, don't you think? Oh, and I use prell at $1.99 a bottle on sale.

Some people just have too much money and are too self indulgent. Buy cheap shampoo and give the savings to Darfur refugees. You will sleep better and feel much better.

Dear Tess:

I just listened to you story about Wen shampoo. I too saw the infomercials online long ago. I really, REALLY wanted to try it but I could not bring myself to pay $30 for it.

I thought and thought... and obsessed about it for weeks and finally decided to poke around the internet to see if I could find a sale on it.

Instead, I found out that Sally Beauty Supply carries a similar product called Hair One for about $10 a bottle. I went to their site and ordered a bottle and have not looked back.

Seriously Tess, its as close to a miracle product as we're every gonna get. And its not really a shampoo- its creamier and leaves my hair in beautiful shape.

And from an economic stand point, I may be breaking even or even saving money. I use no other product in my hair and I no long run to the hairdresser before important events to have my hair straightened to avoid the frizziness.

So check it out. I'll send you a picture of my lovely hair if you'd like to see. I'll even spring for a bottle and send it to you. Maybe you'll become a convert.

Thank you Hair One! (and thanks Tess)

All shampoos get your hair clean. I buy fancypants shampoo because of the extras - ingredients, smell, and personal experience as to how my hair turns out over time based on the shampoo I use. There are other reasons for buying shampoo as well - I use Aveda products because they do not test on animals (Pantene does, btw) and because they're committed to reduction in packaging, recycling, and other green production and marketing methods. And they smell divine. :)

I have just listened to the Marketplace Money report about Wen shampoo. I was introduced to Wen by my sister who heard the claims that it worked well on red hair. After I tried it, I saw the late night infomercial. This product is far superior to all other shampoos out there. This shampoo saved me from my red, frizzy, broom hair.
Over the last 30 years, I have tried many kinds of shampoos from the most reasonably priced to highly priced products with the desire of finding something that actually makes my hair look and feel good. Wen does that.
As a business teacher, I always caution my students about false advertising. I feel like I have finally found a product that was advertised well and actually does what the advertisement claims. Is it at a high price point? Sure it is. So are organic foods, good running shoes and safe cars. For something that is truly a personal choice, I find high value in the Wen product. I can’t say that about many products in the current market.
For me, the real proof came when my husband told me that my hair has been looking really great. Huh, and that was after a shampoo with Wen 2 days ago. After checking the mirror, I think my hair still looks good enough to run out and get some coffee.
Thanks Wen for making a really good product and I wish you the best in the American marketplace!

The story misses the other main component in buying, which was touched on by another calling - Wen does not contain chemicals, like sodium lauryl sulfate, which many people want to avoid. So the expert opinion on why people buy Wen is not fully informed - some people buy more not to avoid future regret to to avoid present regret and to make healthy choices in their life. This is similar to spending more for organic food, and for example, even though I thought the cost was high, I found a company that would recycle my old cassette tapes and cases, because it is more important to me that those products get recycled then end up in landfill.

It's not about the amount of money you spend, because many of the expensive shampoos are just as bad as the cheap ones. What IS important is whether the shampoo you're buying is toxic! Check out the awesome cosmetics database site to determine how toxicity of shampoos, cosmetics, and other beauty products:


I'd say to avoid any shampoo with sulfates. Sulfates are considered toxic and are suspected to possibly cause hair loss, and irritate the scalp.

As for the product Wen, get "Hair One" instead from Sally's Beauty Supply; it's the same stuff, but not as expensive. Also, it's not a shampoo, and it's fantastic stuff.


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