Walt Disney hiked single-day admission prices at its theme parks by up to 9.6 percent last week—its fifth increase since 2009. But other companies might want to think twice before following suit.
Just ask Kohl's.
The department store chain raised prices two years ago, only to see shoppers take their business elsewhere. It has been struggling ever since to make up the lost ground and recently said it would ramp up advertising to entice customers back.
Growth has quickened slightly this year, but most people are still pinching pennies, aggregate consumer spending is up less than 5 percent from pre-recession levels, and companies that try to raise prices risk making their customers angry. If the spotty sales performance of major retailer such as Wal-Mart and Nordstrom is any guide, regaining a measure of pricing power is a distant dream for most companies.
"One of the early behaviors that we saw in the downturn was consumers trading down from higher- to lower-priced products. You saw it in everything from soap to beer," said David Axson, a managing director at global consulting firm Accenture. "Consumer behavior, once it changes, takes a long time to change again."
Even now, four years since the recession ended, the economy is far from healed. Massive job losses have ceased, but the jobless rate is 7.6 percent—and that doesn't include many who have left the workforce because they couldn't find a job. And those with jobs earn fractionally less now on average than in late 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
(Read More: New Math for Cutting Unemployment)
"Typically, at this point we'd be much farther along, but recovering from a financial-led recession takes anywhere from seven to 10 years, and we're still a ways away," said Sam Bullard, senior economist at Wells Fargo.
In fact, fallout from the 2007-09 recession—the deepest since the Great Depression—has left companies nearly as shell-shocked as consumers, said Georg Tacke, co-CEO of Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global consulting firm based in Bonn, Germany.
Under pressure to maintain profit margins, companies have focused on cutting costs to the bone and hoarding cash rather than using it to hire workers or invest. But there's a limit to how lean companies can get.
"At some point, they have to act on prices, and many have forgotten how to do it, and more importantly, have not educated their customers to expect it," Tacke said, adding that such resistance could hurt bottom lines once growth and inflation begin to rise.
For now, things look set to get worse before they get better. Most expect the economy, facing government belt-tightening and higher taxes, to slow from the 2.4 percent growth logged in the first quarter.
That's helped keep price pressures in check. Consumer prices rose just 1.1 percent in the year to April. When stripped of food and energy costs, they were up 1.7 percent, the smallest rise in nearly two years.
(Read More: ADP Week as Summer Slowdown Looms)
Against such a backdrop, "only companies that offer differentiation—whether it's the product or a service—have any pricing power," said Joel Bines, managing director of consulting firm AlixPartners.