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Leveraging Retail Margins: Getting Price Right
Pricing remains a retailer’s biggest margin lever. Yet the potential for getting price wrong has grown exponentially. Price has moved from an art to a science — compelling retailers to ﬁnd new ways to set and manage prices to attract and retain more customers.
No factor dominates shoppers’ decision-making processes like price. Other inﬂuences — products’ intended use, shoppers’ levels of wealth and the degree to which they desire a product — play supporting roles, but price is paramount. So how do retailers win the pricing game? First, they need to get prices right from the start; getting close is not enough. Today’s shoppers show a high propensity for walking out of stores when prices don’t meet their expectations. Relying on price-matching can be a “too little too late” strategy, and can result in retailers unnecessarily giving away margin dollars. High-performing retailers base their pricing decisions on their customers’ changing needs, not on the pricing moves made by their lowest-cost competitors. Second, retailers need to recognize that we are not in a “one price ﬁts all” world, even in today’s environment of ever-increasing price transparency. When it comes to price, most shoppers understand and accept a range of reasonableness determined by product type and use, the timing of a purchase and the level of customer service, and recognize that the cost to serve can vary. These factors provide the “cover” for such tactics as zone pricing, channel choices and personalized offers. Finally, retailers can win at pricing by letting technology be their ally. Managing price with outdated methods — intuition, rules of thumb and spreadsheet analyses — no longer works in today’s fastpaced retail environment, which relies on voluminous amounts of rapidly changing data. What’s more, the potential penalty for getting price wrong has grown exponentially in terms of lost sales and foregone margins.
Price is Paramount
In 2013, Cognizant and RIS News conducted a survey of 2500 shoppers in the United States and Canada1 (see Figure 1, next page). The results showed that price and promotions are the top inﬂuencers of in-store purchase decisions. What’s more, price has consistently reigned in the annual survey over the past four years. Product selection is a close second, but with multiple sources available for almost every type of product, selection carries less inﬂuence — especially for everyday consumable products.
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Importance of Inﬂuencers of In-Store Purchase Decisions
Competitive prices and promotions Right product selection Fast, easy check-out Quality of customer service Ease of returning products Visibility and accessibility of product Compelling loyalty program Other customers’ online ratings and reviews Comments about the product on social media sites 1
2.3 3.0 3.9 3.9 3.8 3.6 3.5 4.5 4.3
Source: Cognizant and RIS News Fourth Annual Shopper Experience Study Figure 1
The same study revealed that price also dominates in the online world. Plus, shoppers cited price as their top reason for “showrooming,” the much talked-about practice in which consumers ﬁrst browse in physical stores for merchandise they later purchase online — usually at prices they consider more favorable. Needless to say, getting price wrong poses a major threat to retailers — leading to lost sales for both brick-and-mortar stores and e-tailers. Shoppers have several options when they are dissatisﬁed with a price. The most popular, according to our survey, is simply leaving the store and purchasing
the product from another retailer — in a physical store or online (see Figure 2). How can retailers retool their pricing to avoid lost sales? Many are turning to price matching — beeﬁng up in-store technology so store associates can more easily grant price matches, then heavily promoting the retailer’s new pricematching policies. Anecdotal comments from store personnel and retail executives, however, suggest few shoppers request price matches. Our research echoes those comments, revealing that shoppers send mixed signals on price matching. They identify it as an option they want retailers
Shopper Responses When Dissatisﬁed With Price
Leave the store and look for the same product at a lower price in another store. Ask an associate to price-match. Leave the store and look for the same product at a lower price online. Use your mobile phone to check prices at other stores and/or e-commerce sites. Purchase an alternative, cheaper item available in that store. Purchase the item at the listed price.
0% 10% 20% 30% 40%
Source: Cognizant and RIS News Fourth Annual Shopper Experience Study Figure 2
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to offer, yet almost 75% had not requested a price match in the preceding three months. For retailers, investing in price-matching policies and the advanced veriﬁcation and compliance systems to support them is of little use if shoppers won’t take advantage of them. We believe a better investment is to get the price right from the start. This means setting prices that are consistent with customer expectations and that factor in competitors’ prices. Getting price right also requires consistency with retailers’ overall value propositions. Price transparency has altered retail forever. “In the old world,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, “you could make a living by hoping that your customer didn’t know whether your price was actually competitive. That’s a very tenuous strategy in the new world. [Now] you can’t convince people you have the low price; you actually have to have the low price.2” But the low-price mantra is just one of many pricing strategies available to retailers. We believe the predictions of a low-price-only environment are premature. Today’s technologies and tools enable retailers to take a more strategic, nuanced approach to managing multiple prices. With zone pricing and smarter selection of key value items, retailers can protect their margins and drive revenues.
In an environment of increasing price transparency, what’s behind retailers’ growing conﬁdence in their ability to manage multiple prices? We have identiﬁed four factors: 1. Consumers understand that the cost to serve differs across markets. It’s more expensive to do business in New York City than in Peoria, and store prices reﬂect those factors. Consumers may not like that reality, but they accept it. Similarly, the airline industry’s tiered pricing structure has driven consumers’ acceptance of multiple prices. Moreover, most consumers value shopping-experience variables — such as service, selection and return policies — that affect price. They realize that not everything is a commodity. 2. The math is compelling. Pricing is retailers’ biggest margin lever. The margin gains from varying pricing, and from charging higher prices when possible, can often outweigh any lost unit volume. 3. Shoppers are not driving the market to a single price. From an economist’s standpoint, today’s market is closer than ever to being efﬁcient. Yet factors such as need, budget and intended use continue to drive shoppers’ perception of value. What’s more, those factors vary by market, customer base, time and brand. That variability, combined with shoppers’ reluctance to request price matches, produces a complex environment in which shoppers are not forcing the market to set a single price. 4. While shoppers have more information than ever before, so do retailers. Price setting is one of those rare instances in which improvements in retail science and technology have kept up with changes in customer behaviors. Access to price recommendation tools is making it simpler to get the price right, and increasing retailers’ capacity to do more price reviews (both the number and frequency of products). Price-intelligence services provide more localized, competitive prices, and the advent of advanced price optimization and management software makes pricing calculation and administration more efﬁcient and accurate.
The Resurgence of Zone Pricing
Zone pricing helps retailers home in on the right price. Yet not long ago, retail analysts were predicting its demise, pointing to the proliferation of easy price comparisons driven by Web apps, shopping services and the like, and forecasting an era ruled by low price. The theory was that retailers would soon have no need to get the price right because there would be only one price everywhere. Research suggests the opposite is happening: Tech-savvy retailers are becoming more adept at executing on zone pricing and protecting their margins. In the past year, many have increased their investments in zone-pricing capabilities and reﬁned the granularity of their pricing zones. From 2012 to 2013, the number of retailers reporting effective policies for managing crosschannel prices and promotions roughly doubled, from 20-38%, according to a report by Retail Systems Research, a Miami-based research and advisory ﬁrm.3
Matching Competitors’ Prices: How Close Is Good Enough?
Many retailers adopt price matching when competition heats up. But price matching is often a race to the bottom that only the largest retailers
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Cumulative Inﬂuence on Customer Price Perception
100 Cumulative Price Perception
80 60 40 20 0 0 10 20 30 40 50 Percent of items
C B A
Price sensitivity decreases C->D enabling more flexible pricing.
Price sensitivity increases B->A requiring sharper competitive pricings.
Source: Revionics retail data analysis Figure 3
can win. Retailers who price-match too often or with too high a percentage of their products can forego margin dollars for no good reason. A report from Retail Systems Research found that the most successful retailers remain competitive by avoiding battles based solely on price;4 they focus on a broad set of issues, such as protecting the brand image, while less successful organizations focus on competitor pricing. One of the buzzwords in today’s retail world is personalization. If there are truly “persons” under personalization, then it stands to reason that when it comes to prices, shoppers will accept a reasonable range. Demand-based optimization technology, which models shopper behavior based on past purchases, can help retailers zero in on that range. This enables retailers to understand shopper price sensitivity and account for behavioral variations across stores, channels and products. By using this technology to exploit price elasticity, retailers can optimize the tradeoffs between margin and revenue, and gain the maximum “credit” for price image, or consumers’ impression of a retailer’s overall price level. A highly elastic product shows signiﬁcant swings in demand when its price is changed; the price must be tightly aligned to competitive levels (often meet or beat) in order to generate priceimage credit in the shopper’s mind. Low-elasticity products show little change in shopper demand when the price is increased, and have greater price and margin ﬂexibility.
Successful retailers often use optimization technology to better understand consumers’ price perceptions and incorporate those insights into price recommendations. Figure 3 reveals that demand-based methodologies typically ﬁnd that 15-20% of items drive 80% of shopper price perception. While competitive pricing needs to be sharper for items that drive signiﬁcant price perception in order to get credit, shoppers allow more ﬂexible pricing for the remaining 80-85% of items. By using a scientiﬁc approach to make fact-based decisions, retailers can improve their price image and maximize margin and revenue.
Creating a Price Impression: Is Less Really More?
While price matching provides the opportunity to retain customers once they are in the store, price image is often what draws them in. Most retailers rely on key value items (KVIs) to maintain the image of fair pricing across their product lines. KVIs are subsets of retailers’ item assortments that disproportionately inﬂuence consumer price perceptions and therefore should be priced more sharply against major competitors. KVIs typically include items that shoppers purchase frequently, such as milk, eggs and bread, in the grocery environment. Retailers often sacriﬁce margin on KVIs with the expectation that they will make it up on other items. The challenge has always been to identify the best KVIs. Regardless of retailers’ size, selection of KVIs has typically been based on an unscientiﬁc mix of intuition, anecdotal information and basic spreadsheet analysis.
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But KVI selection can take on a more data-driven approach as a result of two important changes: shoppers’ increasingly sophisticated, alwaysconnected state and retailers’ ability to track shopper behavior. New technologies make it easier for retailers to choose KVIs based explicitly on shopper behavior and facilitate an expanded and more dynamic selection process — changing seasonally, and by channel and location. How can retailers measure the effect of KVI selection on customer price perception? Science suggests that the most accurate measurement combines revenue and elasticity — elasticityweighted dollars. By ranking items based on total dollar volume times item elasticity, a retailer can identify the items about which customers are most price sensitive. The items that top the list are typically the ones that most inﬂuence customers’ price perceptions and are therefore the best candidates to be KVIs. Our client work reveals a consistent pattern, and underscores why accurate KVI selection is so important: From 15-20% of items are responsible for 80% of shoppers’ overall price impression. Traditional KVI selection often results in lists that are both too large — representing 20-30% of revenue — and uniform across stores that serve diverse markets and have different competitors and assortments. In most cases, KVIs are also poorly distributed across categories. Demandbased science suggests KVIs should represent
12-15% of product revenue across all categories. Categories that include more items that inﬂuence price perception will have more KVIs than others. Trimming KVI lists can have powerful results: One client, a specialty retailer, reduced its KVIs from 400 to 89 and improved overall gross margins by over 3%. Retailers also need to manage KVIs by market and channel. Online shoppers can make quick and easy price comparisons, and are often helped by the many apps that can alert them when prices change or when the price of an item has come down to their target. With online shopping, there is no “investment” or “stickiness” that results from physically going to a brick and mortar store, which can lead a shopper to accept a higher price than desired. These behaviors manifest themselves in different price elasticity between channels. A comparison of price elasticity for brick and mortar-only retailers versus e-tailers demonstrates the impact of price transparency; elasticity values are substantially higher in the online channel, and are more densely distributed (see Figure 4). When selecting KVIs, online retailers should consider market data and online behavioral data such as click streams, crowd-sourced reviews and conversion rates. In general, we ﬁnd KVI lists for online channels need to be larger than brick and mortar, and updated more than once a year.
Comparing In-Store and Online Price Elasticity
Percent of Occurrences
0% 0.6 0.8 1 1.2 1.4 1.6 1.8 2.0 2.2 2.4 2.6
Price Elasticity Value
Brick and Mortar Online
Source: Revionics retail data analysis Figure 4
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The retail business grows more complex every day; competitors and customers are adapting faster than ever. Here are four key takeaways about pricing that retailers need to embrace as they plan for the future: 1. If you have a pricing optimization solution (and you really should), trust the science. You need to monitor it and have controls in place to guard against errant results. But don’t secondguess the pricing solution or perform blanket overrides of its results. When recommendations are summarily overridden, overlapping rules and inter-connectedness of items, categories and channels can lead to unintended consequences, such as lost revenue and damaged customer perceptions.
2. When it comes to creating a price image, less is more. Maintaining too many KVIs makes it difﬁcult to manage them effectively, and many retailers give away margin where they don’t have to. More important, they risk confusing customers and blurring the image they are trying to maintain. 3. Don’t set and forget KVIs. KVIs must change with shoppers’ behavior. Revisit KVIs once a year, more often if major assortment change impacts revenue or a well-established and low-priced competitor enters the market. 4. Pricing has moved from art to science. Retailers need resources dedicated to pricing, either shoulder to shoulder with buyers/category managers or, as we see at more retailers, in a dedicated price management group.
Fourth Annual Shopper Experience Study: Rise of the Individual Shopper. http://www.cognizant.com/InsightsWhitepapers/rise-of-individual-shopper.pdf. http://www.fastcompany.com/3014817/amazon-jeff-bezos. “Tough Love: An In-Depth Look at Retail Pricing Practices,” 2013. http://www.rsrresearch. com/2013/04/08/tough-love-an-in-depth-look-at-retail-pricing-practices/. Ibid.
About the Authors
Greg Kameika is a Senior Manager with Cognizant Business Consulting’s Retail Practice. He has over 25 years of experience of consulting to retail clients in the areas of pricing, merchandising and inventory management. Greg received his BA from Northwestern University and his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He can be reached at Gregory.Kameika@cognizant.com. Colleen Coleman is an Associate Vice President within Cognizant’s Retail Practice. She has 27 years of experience in retail information technology and a bachelor’s of science in Industrial Engineering from Iowa State University. Colleen can be reached at Colleen.Coleman@cognizant.com. Karen Dutch is the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Revionics. She has over 25 years of experience in marketing and information technology solutions across a variety of industries including retail, ﬁnance/ banking, insurance and healthcare. Karen has a bachelor’s of science degree in Computer Science and Mathematics from Duke University. Karen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This white paper was written with the thoughtful assistance of our business partner, Revionics. Revionics’ end-to-end Merchandise Optimization Solution is the industry’s most powerful — enabling retailers to execute a fact-based omni-channel strategy, optimize ﬁnancial performance and improve customer satisfaction. Revionics’ solutions leverage advanced predictive analytics and demand-based science to ensure retailers have the right product, price, promotion, placement and space allocation for optimal results across all touch points in the omni-channel shopping episode – online, in-store, social and mobile. Offered on a scalable, high-performance cloud-based SaaS platform, these solutions future-proof retailers from Big Data/Fast Data challenges, while providing speed-to-ROI. Over 37,000 retail locations and US$150+B in annual revenue across grocery, drug, building materials, convenience, general merchandise, discount, sporting goods stores and eCommerce sites optimize with Revionics’ solutions. Revionics has been recognized as a 2012 Deloitte Technology Fast 500™, Red Herring Top 100 Global, Red Herring Top 100 Americas and JMP Securities’ Hot 100 Software Company. For more information, please visit www.revionics.com.
Cognizant (NASDAQ: CTSH) is a leading provider of information technology, consulting, and business process outsourcing services, dedicated to helping the world’s leading companies build stronger businesses. Headquartered in Teaneck, New Jersey (U.S.), Cognizant combines a passion for client satisfaction, technology innovation, deep industry and business process expertise, and a global, collaborative workforce that embodies the future of work. With over 50 delivery centers worldwide and approximately 166,400 employees as of September 30, 2013, Cognizant is a member of the NASDAQ-100, the S&P 500, the Forbes Global 2000, and the Fortune 500 and is ranked among the top performing and fastest growing companies in the world. Visit us online at www.cognizant.com or follow us on Twitter: Cognizant.
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