Is Target’s Price Matching Policy a Mistake? Yes, but not for reasons HBR says!

English: Logo of Target, US-based retail chain

 

Rafi Mohammed, a Harvard Business Review blogger asks, “Is Target’s price matching policy a mistake?”. If you have not been following the price wars, Target stores recently announced that they will match published prices of their competitors.

 

If you buy a qualifying item at a Target store then find the identical item for less in the following week’s Target weekly ad or within seven days at Target.com, Amazon.com, Walmart.com, BestBuy.com, ToysRUs.com, BabiesRUs.com or in a competitor’s local printed ad, we’ll match the price.

Back to Rafi’s question. The answer is yes. But not for the reasons Rafi offers in his HBR blog post.  As I wrote recently, Target’s policy is wrong because they are taking on a competitor who is strategically irrational.

Rafi’s argument, surprisingly (surprising because Rafi is a pricing professional) is centered around the cost to operate brick and mortar stores.

Amazon for example — have significantly lower cost structures than brick and mortar stores? That makes it close to impossible for a chain to set the same product price both on its web site and in physical stores that is competitive with an Internet-only retailer and still yields a profit.

This is confusing cause and effect. Amazon chose low prices and then cut its costs mercilessly to deliver products at such low prices. Target chose to reach customers with higher willingness to pay (and disposable income) and offer them a store experience to buy products. They incurred the cost of operating stores for two reasons, one they needed to do that to deliver customer experience and two they could still make a profit from the higher prices customers were willing to pay.

Prices come before costs. You don’t incur costs and expect your customers to offset that with higher prices.

Rafi’s recommendation for Target is,

Target should instead match prices of online rivals with a comparable “apples to apples” service: order from Target.com. If a customer sees a lower online price, Target will match only if ordered from Target.com.

It does not work that way. What is the differentiation here? What compelling reason does Target.com offer to those who otherwise would choose Amazon (based only on price)? I should note that Rafi is also the proponent of 1% price increase philosophy, and that recommendation does not work here as well.

What are the real recommendations? If prices come before costs, customer segment and their needs come before prices. So any pricing strategy recommendation to Target must start by asking what customer segment does Target want to reach  and what should be their offering (product mix, service and delivery model)? May be it is the equivalent of “same day delivery”, or a unique product mix that isn’t available in other channels, or the ease of returns. Target has to find out what is relevant to its target segment and decide.

In my tweet question to Forrester Retail Analyst Sucharita Mulupuru, she replied

For same products where the channel adds no value, she says, charging higher prices is not going to be possible. Her two recommendations are developing private labels (that can yield price premium as well) and Unilateral Pricing Policy (UPP) where the manufacturer sets a fixed price that all channels have to sell for.

If you take this to the extreme, it is likely we will soon see total vertical integration in retail channels – from the very devices we use to browse and buy,  to products we buy  and even the method of payments we make. Not far fetched if you consider the reasons why Amazon is trying to get Kindle in every hand.

And yes, HBR is right but how it arrived at the answer is wrong.

 

Waging Price Matching War

In game theory they talk about deciding your move based on what rational opponents would react. A variant of that strategy is to convince your opponent that you are no where near rational so they better not expect you to do the rational reaction to your action.

For example if you are playing a game of chicken in cars, if you were to break the steering wheel and toss it out the window in front of your opponent then he knows you are not going to swerve. (source: Art and Science of Negotiation). That is strategic irrationality.

In the game of chicken played in retail prices, Amazon is such a strategically irrational player. A recent BusinessWeek article screams

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Doesn’t Care About Profit Margins

Mr.Bezos has signaled to all other players that he has thrown away his steering-wheel and placed a brick on his gas pedal. They are not going to let up on lowering prices and they can keep at it as long as they can because they have the full trust of their shareholders.

The right move in this game is not to do exactly the same and agreeing to match prices. But other retailers don’t seem to get it.

Target is the latest retailer who decided to play the price matching game not realizing their opponent’s stated irrationality. Target announced they will match all Amazon prices if customers can show proof.At least, unlike BestBuy’s mistake of making it easy for customers to get the price match, Target has added manual steps for customers. But that isn’t enough to stop the bleeding – either customers will do that additional work or simply go to Amazon.

If one player in a market says they will match any lowest price in the market the rational move for others is not to lower their prices because they get no advantage from it and only erode their margins. But Target is not dealing with rational player.

Fundamentally, by agreeing to match Amazon prices, they are saying their store provides no unique products, no unique value and  is undifferentiated from an online store. The right strategic move would be to ask,

“what unique value the store provides to its target customers and what is the right product mix that makes the customers buy from them”.

Even if this would result in severe revenue reduction – because they end up eliminating many products from their shelves – in the long run it would help make Target a profitable venture.

Instead they chose to play the game of chicken with with an opponent who has given up on steering.

This isn’t going to end well for Target. Circuit City here we come.