The Power of Pricing
At few moments since the end of World War II has downward pressure on prices been so great. Some of it stems from cyclical factors—such as sluggish economic growth in the Western economies and Japan—that have reined in consumer spending. There are newer sources as well: the vastly increased purchasing power of retailers, such as Wal-Mart, which can therefore pressure suppliers; the Internet, which adds to the transparency of markets by making it easier to compare prices; and the role of China and other burgeoning industrial powers whose low labor costs have driven down prices for manufactured goods. The one-two punch of cyclical and newer factors has eroded corporate pricing power and forced frustrated managers to look in every direction for ways to hold the line.
In such an environment, managers might think it mad to talk about raising prices. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. We are not talking about raising prices across the board; quite often, the most effective path is to get prices right for one customer, one transaction at a time, and to capture more of the price that you already, in theory, charge. In this sense, there is room for price increases in today's markets.
Such an approach to pricing—transaction pricing, one of the three levels of price management—was first described ten years ago. The idea was to figure out the real price you charged customers after accounting for a host of discounts, allowances, rebates, and other deductions. Only then could you determine how much money, if any, you were making and whether you were charging the right price for each customer and transaction.
Transaction pricing is one of three levels of price management. Although distinct, each level is related to the others, and action at any one level could easily affect the others as well. Businesses trying to obtain a price advantage—that is, to make superior pricing a source of distinctive performance—must master all three of these levels.
Industry price level. The broadest view of pricing comes at the industry price level, where managers must understand how supply, demand, costs, regulations, and other high-level factors interact and affect overall prices. Companies that excel at this level avoid unnecessary downward pressure on prices and often emerge as industry price leaders.
Product/market strategy level. The primary issue at this second level is pricing a product or service relative to the competition. To do so, companies must understand how customers perceive all offerings on the market and, most particularly, which attributes—product as well as service and intangible attributes—drive purchase decisions. With this knowledge, companies can set visible list prices that accurately reflect the competitive strengths (or weaknesses) of their offerings.
Transaction level. The focus of transaction pricing is to decide the exact price for each transaction—starting with the list price and determining which discounts, allowances, payment terms, bonuses, and other incentives should be applied. For a majority of companies, the management of transaction pricing is the most detailed, time-consuming, systems-intensive, and energy-intensive task involved in gaining a price advantage.
Today, it is more critical than ever for managers to focus on transaction pricing; they can no longer rely on the double-digit annual sales growth and rich margins of the 1990s to overshadow pricing shortfalls. Moreover, at many companies, little cost-cutting juice can easily be extracted from operations. Pricing is therefore one of the few untapped levers to boost earnings, and companies that start now will be in a good position to profit fully from the next upturn.
Current price pressures should go a long way toward removing two other obstacles: will and skill. In the booming economy of the 1990s, robust demand and cost-cutting programs, which drove up corporate earnings, made too many managers pay too little attention to pricing. But now that a global economic downturn has slowed growth and the easiest cost cutting has already occurred, the shortfall in pricing capabilities has been exposed. A large number of companies still don't understand the untapped opportunity that superior transaction pricing represents. For many companies, getting it right may be one of the keys to surviving the current downturn and to flourishing when the upturn arrives. It has never been more crucial—or more possible—to learn and apply the skills needed to execute superior transaction-price management.
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