WHEN bosses promise to make their companies more profitable they usually say they will do so by increasing sales or cutting costs. But a third road to profits is rarely mentioned: putting prices up. Managers often fail to ask how they might do better at plucking the goose to obtain the most feathers with the least hissing. The spiel from the management consultants who advise companies on pricing—whether specialists like Simon-Kucher or giant generalists like PWC—is that it is now more vital than ever to be smart at it. In today’s austere age many businesses cannot depend on rising sales volumes to lift their profits. As for cutting costs, most have already pared them to the bone. Prices are all that is left. And a business can do a lot with clever pricing, to boost its share of the limited spending-power that is out there.
Makers of high-tech products such as smartphones can opt to add whizzy new features and push up prices. In the case of luxury goods, their exclusivity is a large part of their appeal, and this in turn is a function of their price, so firms usually have scope for limiting supply and charging more: Ferrari, a sports-car maker, and Mulberry, a purveyor of posh bags, have both recently signalled that they plan to do just that. But raising prices by making products better or more exclusive is a strategic decision, open to only a few types of business. For all sorts of mundane goods and services there is much that can be done tactically, the consultants say, to charge more for the same thing.
Second, companies need to remember that, as the late Peter Drucker, a management guru, once put it, customers do not buy products, they buy the benefits that these products and their suppliers offer to them. So, businesses that fail to identify what benefits they are offering each type of customer are likely to be undercharging some of them. Equipment-makers who sell to other businesses can be especially prone to a “cost-plus” mentality, in which they charge the same margin to everyone instead of identifying those that are less price-sensitive and finding ways to earn more from them. Oil companies, for example, can suffer huge costs in lost drilling time if a pump goes down, so pump-makers could charge them a premium for guaranteed same-day dispatch of spares.
Airlines have learned to “unbundle” their product, charging separately for baggage and meals and increasing their overall takings. But industrial suppliers may still charge the same to customers who never call their technical helpline as to those who ring it daily. Makers of everything from aircraft engines to lorry tyres have gone further in selling benefits rather than products, by offering “power by the hour” contracts in which customers only pay when they use their goods. The suppliers earn more overall, while their customers preserve scarce capital.
A third route to charging more is to manage customers’ expectations better. In the early 2000s executives at General Motors were told to wear badges with “29” on their lapels, as part of a disastrous plan to get back to a 29% market share in America. This merely reinforced car-buyers’ assumption that GM would offer them whatever discounts it took to shift its metal off the forecourts, putting the firm on the road to bankruptcy. (Last year its market share fell to 17.5%, its lowest since the 1920s.) Once customers know that a firm’s price list is a work of fiction and that it will resort to discounts as soon as sales dip, it will be a long haul to get them used to paying full price, let alone accepting increases. Simon-Kucher’s consultants praise DHL, a logistics firm, which spent years drilling into its customers that whatever the economic conditions there will be a rate rise each year.
You’ve been framed
Fourth, there are lots of simple presentational tricks that almost everyone is wise to but which still, miraculously, work. Restaurants add some overpriced wines lower down the menu to make the ones at the top seem reasonable. Makers of ice cream offer “33% extra free” rather than “25% off” the cost of the regular size, even though these are arithmetically the same thing. Buyers at big industrial firms are just as susceptible to such “framing” when reviewing a list of widget prices.
The pricing experts make it sound so easy. But there are of course limits to how far firms can go in tailoring their prices to the customer without appearing sneaky. Last year Orbitz, an online travel agency, was criticised for offering a costlier selection of hotels to people browsing its site on an Apple Mac because it assumed they were richer than PC users. Although a firm’s customers may not notice the odd price rise slipped in here and there, they will eventually notice if their overall bill starts to swell: Tesco, Britain’s biggest grocer, is now having to offer expensive discounts to win back a damaged reputation for value.
And sticking to a pricing strategy takes guts. The irony, confides a senior management consultant, is that firms like his have such a taboo against letting go of a client that they are the worst at taking their own advice to be fearless in asking for more, and walking away if they do not get it.