Aligining Price With Value – Metering Vs. Versioning

In any  all you can eat pricing model, be it a lunch buffet or at&t iPhone subscription pricing, as long as the  total revenue  exceeds total costs, the business will make a profit  regardless of whether they lose money on any one customer.  There will always be a distribution of customers based on value they receive and price they pay

  1. Some customers get more value than what they pay
  2. Some don’t get as much value as they paid for

The problem occurs  when  the first segment uses a higher proportion of the service and risk completely starving the second segment.

AT&T says,

the heaviest data users, saying that 40 percent of AT&T’s data traffic came from just 3 percent of its smartphone customers

To provide appropriate level of service to the second segment AT&T needs to size their services so the big appetite of the first segment is served. Facing customer backlash from slowness, AT&T is trying to reduce data usage by the heavy iPhone users – this implies they are either working on introducing metered pricing or a multi-version pricing.

Either of these plans require that their subscribers understand the value they get from the current unlimited plan. If the customers do not know  how much value they have been receiving they will balk at any changes to current pricing. AT&T has a leg up on this, they have been itemizing  data plan usage minutes (page after page if you received paper bill) even though the plan is supposed to be unlimited. It is arguable how many customers look at paper bill but the auditing does provide a way for AT&T to make a case with its customers when they introduce new pricing plan.

For example,

“Dear customer, do you know, on the average, you used 100 minutes of data service for 1GBytes download in the past 12 months. That’s $50 in value per month and $30 more than what other customers like you receive. To better serve your needs and those of all our customers like yourself we are introducing a new pricing plan …”

Which one will it be? Will it be metering, charging per minute or megabyte of download of data usage? Will it be a set of new data plan versions offering a combination of minutes and download? Which has better chances of succeeding?

I do not believe it will be usage based pricing. It does not align with the current minutes plan and the  problem it introduces with customers constantly worrying about using the data service.  AT&T already has a track record in executing a successful multi version pricing plan for its wireline high speed service (see figure left). Modeled after this we should expect to see three to six different data plans at different price points, each offering a combination of minutes and download (GBytes).

Versioning is about offering multiple versions at different price points so the customers self select- in this case it also helps to better align the value customers have been receiving with the price they pay.

Pricing Digital Goods – (Hint: Not Free)

The problem with digital goods is it is easy to get confused by its economics, the marginal cost is $0, selling a unit to customer does not make it unavailable to another and there are challenges in restricting use. This has led to supposedly new branch of economics, “economics of free and abundance”, led by Mr. Chris Anderson and has built a large following.

I have written several articles on the need to sell the value and not focus on the marginal cost. In the digital world matching price to value is more difficult than it is in physical world.  Economist Brad DeLong from UC Berkeley (my alma mater) writes in his 1999 paper titled, Speculative Microeconomics for Tomorrow’s economy,

In many information-based sectors of the next economy, the purchase of a good will no longer be transparent. The invisible hand theory assumes that purchasers know what they want and what they are buying so that they can effectively take advantage of competition and comparison-shop. If purchasers need first to figure out what they want and what they are buying, there is no good reason to assume that their willingness to pay corresponds to its true value to them.

When customers do not exactly know what they want and the value they get, the marketer will find it hard to make a value proposition and charge a price that captures that value. Difficult does not make it a good reason to give up on charging for digital goods and give it away for free.

In a Nov 1998 article in Harvard Business Review, economists Hal Varian  (also from Berkeley now at Google) and Carl Shapiro wrote (Harvard Business Review, 00178012, Nov/Dec98, Vol. 76, Issue 6)

But there is a practical way to set different prices for basically the same information without incurring high costs or offending customers. You do it by offering the information in different versions designed to appeal to different types of customers. With this strategy, which we call versioning, customers in effect segment themselves. The version they choose reveals the value they place on the information and the price they’re willing to pay for it.

It takes us back to what Ted Levitt said about customers buying holes and later what Clayton Christensen said about, “what job is your customer hiring your product for?”. The difficulty in value calculation comes from focusing on the “drill” and not on the “hole”. If marketers focus on what the customers really want and what job they are hiring the digital information for it becomes easier to tease out the value to customers and how it differs across segments. Then the marketer can target the segments with specific versions and position it appropriately to capture a share of the the value through effective pricing.

Proposals to give away your offering (Mr. Chris Anderson in Free/Freemium) or let the customer decide what they want to pay may capture your imagination but as Hal Varian (who was described by Mr. Chris Anderson as someone who taught him more about economics than any of his professors) said in 1998 (full ten years before these new models):

Success in selling digital goods does not require a whole new way of thinking about business. Rather, it requires the same kind of smart managing and smart marketing that have always set apart the best companies. The real power of versioning is that it enables you to apply tried-and-true product-management techniques-segmentation, differentiation, positioning-in a way that takes into account both the unusual economics of information production and the endless malleability of digital data.

The road to profitability in any market goes through STP! That’s Segmentation – Targeting – Positioning. The rule does not change whether you are selling physical or digital goods.

Knowing Your True Marginal Cost

From big businesses to home based businesses there is an uncontrollable desire to allocate a share of the total cost to every unit of product sold. It is actually surprising that some of the small businesses do elaborate calculations just so they can allocate a share of the mortgage, insurance, delivery vehicle etc. This is from the NYTimes story on the new entrepreneurial craze – Cupcake stores:

For each cupcake she sells, Ms. Lovely figures she spends 60 cents on ingredients, 57 cents on mortgage payments and utilities, 48 cents on labor, 18 cents on packaging and merchant fees, 16 cents on loan repayment, 24 cents for marketing, 18 cents for miscellaneous expenses and 4 cents for insurance. That totals $2.45, leaving a potential profit of 55 cents on each $3 cupcake.

It is not difficult to see that Ms.Lovely’s elaborate calculations are based on volume sold, so any changes in number of cupcakes sold will affect her cost allocations.  Only the ingredients and labor costs are true marginal costs (you could argue even those don’t count as MC).  For a cupcake priced at $3, that gives a contribution margin of  $1.92 which all add up to defray the fixed costs of mortgage, insurance taxes etc.

So when volume drops and the margin drops below 55 cents will Ms.Lovely increase price of her cupcakes? Will the market pay for it? The problem with cost driven decision making is it ignores the customers.

Padding marginal costs with cost allocation combined with the percentage margin obsession will lead to incorrect pricing that is unrelated to what the market is willing to pay and lost profits or even the end of your business.

Here is five step process for cupcake cost economics:

  1. First find out how many cupcakes you can sell different prices, then find the price that maximizes your profit given the true marginal cost for a cupcake.
  2. The difference between price and the marginal cost is what each cupcake contributes to defray your fixed cost and eventually contributes to your profit. This is called the contribution margin.
  3. The number of cupcakes you need to sell so that the total contribution margin can cover fixed costs is your breakeven volume.
  4. Don’t look at % margin on each cupcake, this is irrelevant to your business decision. Not every cupcake you sell needs to contribute to profit, only those that you sell beyond the break even point contribute to profit. Trying to allocate fixed cost and profit to every cupcake leads to bad decisions.
  5. If you cannot sell the cupcake for more than its marginal cost, there is no business case. If the total contribution margin   cannot cover the fixed costs, there is no business case.

We are increasing prices because …

[tweetmeme source=”pricingright”] I saw a notice posted on the external doors of an ice rink that said,

Please close the doors behind you otherwise the rink will fog up

I did not stand around to measure how many followed the advice and whether this number was better than what it would have been if the sign had simply asked “Please close the door behind you”.  But other people have done such studies.

In the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) author Robert B. Cialdini narrates the work done by Harvard Social Psychologist Ellen Langer on the power of the word “because”.

People simply like to have reasons for what they do.

It does not matter how relevant or meaningful the reason is. The word “because” made the difference in people accepting your request. This isn’t to say that giving reasons for requests works universally but  it does help to reduce resistance.

Take the case of price increases. When a marketer pushes through price increases without extending any reason customers resist those increases and perceive the price increase as unfair. But if the price increase were justified with a reason, a greater number of customers will accept it. In their paper titled, Perceptions of Price Fairness, researchers Gielissen, Dutilh,and Graafland  validated the hypothesis that price increases justified with cost arguments were perceived to be fair by customers.

Ellen Langer’s and Cialdini’s work point to another possible reason for customer acceptance of higher prices – it is not the justification itself but the mere presence of one.  This opens up opportunities for both B2C and B2B marketers to re-price their offering or capture greater value without turning away customers – just give a reason.

We see that in the earnings results of CPG brands that used commodity price increase in 2008 to push through their price increases.

Another case is for two-part pricing – asking customers to pay an upfront fee and then a per unit price.  Examples are mobile phone activation fee or registration fee charged by services. These upfront fees are nothing but pure profit for the marketer and find customer acceptance when justified with reasons, however trivial, like  processing fee or registration fee.  For B2B case, a marketer can charge additional upfront price with reasons like customizations or order processing.

Just give a reason! – “We are increasing prices otherwise we will go out of business”

I should note that this is a pricing tactic and not a strategy – if your strategy is wrong, any number of fine tuning tactics, even with reasons, are not going to help.

Footnote: It is a good idea to A/B test your reasons even though Cialdini and Langer say the specific reason is immaterial.

Pricing different movies differently

[tweetmeme source=”pricingright”] The question of, “Why are all the movie tickets priced the same?” have been studied at length*.  Economists express surprise at how primitive movie pricing is and how sub-optimal it is to charge the same price for all the movies. Marketers are surprised by the absence of basic tenet of marketing – segmentation and targeting, positioning the product and capturing value. Movie ticket pricing are indeed a greenfield for practicing price discrimination offering large un-captured consumer surpluses and value from price sensitive moviegoers.

Most pricing recommendations for movie theaters ask for

  1. Higher pricing for weekends
  2. Higher pricing based on mega budget films with stars
  3. Higher pricing in the opening weeks and then reduced pricing (like Hardcover, softcover books pricing)

These methods were usually pushed aside because of the logistics of implementing them ( Movie Mystery. By: Hessel, Evan, Forbes, 00156914, 1/29/2007, Vol. 179, Issue 2) or complexity in estimating weekend box office sales. Others offered conventions as the reason for not adopting variable pricing at movies.

To be fair, movie theaters do practice  price discrimination. They sell the morning shows at a discount bringing price sensitive customers who are willing to make the trade-off (Second degree). They give discount to students (Third degree). They sell discount tickets through supermarkets that can be used after the first two weeks (Second degree).

But the basic question remains, when everything else is held constant except for the movie itself, why are the tickets for two different movies priced the same? For example, at an AMC multiplex  the 4PM screening of two new animated movies, Planet 51 and Fantastic Mr. Fox, are priced exactly the same $10.75.   Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on a book by renowned children author Roald Dahl (a very good book if you have not read alrady) and Planet 51 is a slapstick comedy of reverse ET.  Why can’t these be priced differently? Why cannot movie theaters practice price discrimination across movie titles?

The answer, I believe, lies in utility customer gets from different movies. Movie theaters can charge different prices for different movies only if the customer utility and hence their willingness to pay varies across different movies.  Stripped to the barebones, all movies are perceived as the same by customers – these are all entertainment. In other words different movies are simple horizontal product line extensions.

Based on the marketing study that found horizontal product lines are perceived identical by customers and hence have no difference in customer willingness to pay I hypothesize that customers will not accept pricing that varies across movies.

While pricing different movies differently is not possible, movie theaters can and do charge different prices when the movie varies in format or experience like 3D and IMAX 3D. For example, AMC charges $11.75 and $12.75 for 3D and IMAX 3D shows of Disney’s Christmas Carol. This is possible because the 3D shows are vertically differentiated and the perceived value to the customers vary from the baseline version.

The net is movie theaters cannot increase profits by pricing different movies differently but can do so by offering vertical differentiation in the form of 3D movies (of course this is not under the control of theaters but the studios), better seating (practiced in most other entertainment venues) or better experience (specific auditoriums with better speakers).

Footnote: Other movie ticket pricing references

  1. Movie Mystery. By: Hessel, Evan, Forbes, 00156914, 1/29/2007, Vol. 179, Issue 2
  2. Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies: And Other Pricing Puzzles by Richard B. McKenzie (p157-163) (My review of this book here)
  3. Why are all movies the same price? – Marginal revolution
  4. Antitrust and Pricing in the Motion Picture Industry. Yale Journal on Regulation Summer2004, Vol. 21 Issue 2, p317-367, 51p
  5. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki (p98-102)
  6. Stanford GSB Research on Why Movie Popcorn costs so much?

Hormel Chili Prices Going To Get Hot

Hormel Chili reported increase in profit despite drop in revenues. Unlike all previous CPG cases we saw last quarter, Hormel’s profit came exclusively from cost reduction. In fact they failed to capture larger profit because of the price cuts.

Their revenue declined 10% on a volume decline of 3%. This means their prices dropped on the average by  7.2%. That is pure profit given away in he form of promotions and lower prices while the customers really were not looking for it. Their frozen food line saw 8% price erosion (revenue fell 9% on a 1% volume drop).

The good news is Hormel knows it and definitely is going to fix it. Hormel Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey M. Ettinger said,

Although we are pleased with our earnings, we experienced disappointing sales in the fourth quarter,” he said, citing in part lower pricing for its pork and turkey products and planned production reductions at its Jennie-O Turkey business, which is in the middle of a turnaround.

They can only go so far with cost reduction, but their current lower price offers bigger headroom for profit growth. If Hormel improved its prices by 5% and if their volume fell by about the same amount, their revenue may not grow as much but their profits will increase by  $64 million, that is 60% net income growth from 5% price improvement!

If the stock  market really follows profits over market share, we should expect Hormel stock to heat up.