From Effective Pricing to Egregious Pricing – Starbucks

starbucks-steel-gift-card--4_3_r560In the past I have only written praiseworthy things about Starbucks pricing. I always admired how they set prices for their drinks, decide to raise prices when everyone else was running price promotions and how they communicated their price increases. This time I think they have crossed over from effective pricing to egregious pricing.

First time I wrote about Starbucks pricing it was on their decision to increase prices when the global economy was going into recession

In the case of Starbucks, how did they arrive at price increase, going against the flow? The simplest calculation here is, when price conscious customers moved out all they are left with are price insensitive customers who prefer their products. Hence it makes sense to charge more for them as long as the loss in profit from further drop in customers is less than the increase in profit from higher price. (Here is an attempt at formal proof on why increasing prices yields better profits).

Later on it was on their price communication,

As you read this multiple times you will find all kinds of reasons except, “We cater to a somewhat higher-income customer and we price our products based on customer willingness to pay. Besides we don’t expect any push back from these high income segment”.

A key attribute of those practicing value based pricing is never explicitly saying that they are practicing value based pricing. There are always other reasons and you never say pricing at customer willingness to pay. A key part of practicing effective pricing is effective pricing communication and managing customer perception.

Even when they announced $7 lattes I only had good things to say. After all they likely have more data on their customers and buying behaviors than any of us do. They likely found a segment willing to pay $7 for lattes and are simply targeting them with a product version at a price those customers are willing to pay (second degree price discrimination).

Even if there is no such segment, a $7 price tag helps to improve the reference price in the minds of rest of their customers and hence will provide Starbucks with a way to increase prices of their other drinks.

All these are effective pricing. No doubt. But now I think they crossed over from effective to egregious, launching a contemptuous attack on their customer’s intelligence.

Starbucks recently introduced its new Steel gift card that is sold only through Gilt.com and costs you $450 but buys you only $400 worth lattes.

If we leave out the last phrase “$400 worth”, everything else about this product is indeed effective.

  1. They chose the right customer segment and set a price specific to that segment
  2. Set a hard limit on number of units they wanted to sell – a result of their understanding of the size of the segment and a tactic to create artificial scarcity
  3. Designed the product to be distinctive (Steel over Plastic) – making it a conspicuous consumption. Imagine flashing this card in your local Starbucks, the baristas and the rest of us mere mortals have no option but submit to your opulence (Disclosure: I go to Starbucks only when someone else is buying)
  4. Selling it only through luxury goods website Gilt.com and not at every Starbucks outlet – thereby not only reaching customers with high reference price, high willingness to pay and high wherewithal to pay but also not targeting rest of their customers
  5. Guaranteeing profit from a high value gift card that locks up future sales and the possibility to add 10-15% of face value as profit from breakage (customers not using full value of the card)

Had they stopped right there, a $450 card worth $450 lattes, that would’ve been effective pricing. Then they took it one step further.  They decided to extract even more profit by setting the value of the gift card to only $450. And as they were wont to do with giving cost reasons they said,

One reason the card is so pricy is because it isn’t made of plastic — but specially etched steel. That guarantees the heavy metal wedge with the familiar Starbucks logo will stand out in your wallet and at the cash register.

The Starbucks card costs $50 to make,

Even if it is true, why should the cost matter in this case? This is not a true product. This is like the US Treasury asking you to pay $550 in change for a $500 bill because it costs them $50 to print that bill.  While it made perfect sense to use cost argument to push through price increases, cost has no relevance to take away value of the gift card.

What they have demonstrated here is utter disregard for the customer. They probably think, if these customers were willing to pay $5000 for a luxury product that costs $50 make why not take $450 cash from them for $400 worth lattes.

The sad part is they may be right and they likely will sell out all 5000 of their limited edition steel gift card. After all don’t we all pay $100 more for 16GB additional flash that only costs pennies? May be the steel gift card is laser etched and designed to fit so perfectly in your palm and that alone is worth $50 for some.

My outrage is probably misplaced and egregious pricing is likely the new effective pricing.

How are you going to react when you see that startup founder flashing the steel card at Starbucks, especially when his product is free?