Pay What You Can Is Not Price Discrimination

Update 1/2/2014: I am saddened to hear Sensorielle is now closed.

This has been my favorite pricing case study for the past ten months or so – Sensorielle spa in the city I love, Boulder, went to a Pay-what-you-can pricing model. The spa’s owner, Ms. Petteway made it clear that this is not “pay what you want” but a scheme to allow those loyal customers who were hurt by down economy to come back and pay only what they could afford.

A few months back I wrote about the partial results published by:

Ms.Petteway published results from her experience in the Boulder Net LinkedIn discussion board. She talks about how  few customers interpret the pricing plan as “pay what I want” and ask for high-end services even though they pay less than the posted prices. For any rational customer (Homo Economicus) whose goal is to maximize their utility, it makes sense to pay the minimum they can get away with.

I said then Pay-what-you-can  scheme despite its close resemblance to first order price discrimination is not really price discrimination. It does not stand on solid data ground or analysis and leaves the future profit uncertain. Better results could be achieved with segmentation and targeting.

Will this pricing scheme help the spa identify willingness to pay of different customers? No, because the reference price is set by the list price and is pushed down by the option for “pay-what-you-can”. There are other ways to get customers to reveal their true willingess to pay (see my article on Pricing for garage sale).

I do not have access to any sales data nor have I had this conversation with Ms.Petteway but I hypothesize that they found this pricing scheme yielded lower profit than previous years.  The spa is not standing still and is making  more pricing changes  for the coming year:

  1. The Pay-what-you-can is limited to just two days of the week. This is something they should have done to start with and that would have been a great way to sort customers based on their WTP.  This would also help reduce cost of operations for those days by staffing with junior staff and not offering their high margin services. I also would recommend offering no reservations or charge for reservation separately (unbundled pricing) for these pay-what-you-can days.
  2. They are increasing prices of some and decreasing prices of some. If they based it on customer survey then it makes perfect sense. When re-pricing  two version of the same service I would have recommended that they don’t reduce the price for both.
  3. Note how the text reads for price decrease and price increase. They say “price reduced” and “price changed” respectively. That is not a strategy but the right messaging – do not ever say price increase.

Small businesses can blame the economy and be swept by the recessionary wave or they can take control on their marketing strategy to drive higher profits. Lack of specific marketing skills is not an excuse anymore. Kudos to Ms.Petteway for experimenting with pricing and her willingness to adapt as she gained more data about consumer behavior.

2 thoughts on “Pay What You Can Is Not Price Discrimination

  1. My opinion . . . those that decide to go the “pay-what-you-want” or “pay-what-you-can” route with all or part of their pricing . . . are really saying one or all of the following:

    (1) I really have no idea who would want or need what we are selling
    (2) I do not have the time, nor consider it a priority, to understand my market and customers
    (3) I need help with my marketing, sales and pricing . . but this seems easier
    (4) I operate my business based on feelings and this feels good (customers, prospects, partners and employees beware)
    (5) I have done extensive research and we are willing to bet we can make the money we need to support the business and stay relevant in some other way (e.g., entertainment industry, in limited cases).


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