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Price discounts – Good or bad idea?

Shop window with two clothed mannequins and three price discount stickers on the window of 50%, 30% and 20%

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Why read this? : Price discounts divide opinions in sales and marketing. We share why sales teams like them, and marketing teams don’t. Learn the basic finances of a price promotion, and why context drives how you should use them. Read this to learn how price discounts fit into your sales and marketing planning. 

This time of year sees us drowning in a tidal wave of Christmas advertising. But it’s also one of the biggest sales promotion periods of the year.

Click Frenzy, Singles Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday all come along in a flurry of media coverage and hype.

As per our sales promotion guide, you have 3 main ways to drive short-term sales. 

First, you can drive visibility with displays and shelf-strips (in-store) or banners and flashes (online).

Sale sign in white on a red window with outline of a person walking past in the background

As we wandered around our local supermarket earlier, merchandising teams had clearly been hard at work. We were practically tripping over displays of Ferrero Rocher and Lindt chocolates. 

Next, there’s sales team support. For example information and education materials. Giveaways and presentations. These can be less visible to the public than well, the visibility items we mentioned above. But, you can guarantee sales teams were presenting to buyers 4-6 months ago to get those displays and banners in place today.

Lastly, and our focus this week, is price discounts. Because let’s face it, customers love a good bargain. We all get a nice dopamine rush, when we think we’ve got something cheaper than it’s meant to be. But what’s the impact, when it’s your brand, or your store offering the price discounts? 

Price discounts - sales view vs. marketing view

Price discounts divide opinions. Sales teams generally love them. When your target is to hit a sales number, lowering the price to shift more units just makes sense, doesn’t it? 

It’s nice and simple to explain. Everyone gets it. In fact, in most categories, it’s expected you do a price deal at some point. 

You get to talk to the buyer about volume uplifts. Rates of sale. Funding for the offer. You get to negotiate other trading benefits for the money you put into price discounts. And of course, it helps you hit the sales target that drives your salary review and bonus pay-out. 

Boom! Brilliant!

We’ve been there. We get it. 

But, there’s a but. There’s always a but. Because there’s another way of looking at price discounts. It usually comes from the marketing team.

Because every time you cut the price, you’re giving money away. You “pay” customers something towards buying your product if they don’t pay full price. You devalue the brand. The message you send is that not enough people buy at the regular price. So you’re cutting the price to move product. And, when it goes back to the regular price, won’t some people just wait until the next round of price discounts?

So, who’s in the right here? Do you price discount, or not?

To answer that you first have to look at the finances of price discounts. And then, look at your brand’s positioning and competitive strategy

The finances of price discounts

Price discounts and sales promotions affect your profit and loss. Less revenue per unit sold, and also usually extra selling costs. You need to calculate if the price discount will have a positive impact on your bottom line. 

For example, say your sales team propose offering a 20% price discount next month. And it’ll double your unit sales.

Sounds good, right? Double the number of sales has to be good, surely?

Five piles of different types of coins - appears to be 1,2,5,10 and 20 cent euros

But finance people would quickly tell you, you need more information to work out if it’s worth doing. 

Let’s look at 2 different scenarios to show why this could be a good or a bad idea. 

Scenario 1 - Good idea

You sell 100 units a month. Each product sells at $100. You make $50 profit per unit. Total sales is 100 units x $100 = $10,000. Total profit is 100 units x $50 = $5,000. 

With this 20% price promotion, you now sell 200 units. Double sales, remember?

Each product sells at $80. You make $30 profit per unit. Total sales is 200 x $80 = $16,000. Total profits is 200 x $30 = $6,000.

In this scenario, both your total sales (+$6,000) and total profit (+$1,000) are better than a “normal” non-promotional month. This price promo is clearly a good idea.

Scenario 2 - Bad idea

Now let’s change one number in this scenario.

In a normal month, you still sell 100 units at $100 each. But this time, you only make $30 profit per unit.

Total sales are still 100 units x $100 = $10,000. But now total profit is 100 units x $30 = $3,000. 

The promotion still drives sales to 200 units. Each product still sells at $80. But, now you only make $10 profit per unit. Total sales are still $16,000. But total profit is now only 200 units x $10 = $2,000.

Close up of old style Texas Instruments calculator

In this scenario, your total sales is still +$6,000. But your total profit is down $1,000 versus a normal month. That sounds like a bad idea.  

So, in scenario 1 you’d do the promotion. Scenario 2, you wouldn’t, right? 

Well, mostly, yes.

But this calculation is only a starting point. There are other factors to consider. Because, depending on the source of volume, sometimes you would NOT do scenario 1. And sometimes, you WOULD still do scenario 2. 

Source of volume and price discounts

If those extra unit sales go to existing regular users, who just buy more at the lower price, you’ll find those regular buyers will take longer to buy again. This is called “pantry filling”. People buying multiple items on discount and then not buying again until they run out. This could lead to less sales and profit in the following months, and an overall net loss, even under Scenario 1 above.

So, rewarding customers who’d have bought anyway, would make Scenario 1 less attractive. 

On the other hand, if those units go to new users or switch users from a competitor, those sales are incremental. You wouldn’t have got them any other way, and you use the sales promotion to drive trial of your product. Once people try a product, they’re more likely to buy it next time. This lag effect could add to your pool of future ‘regular’ buyers.  The value of these ‘acquired’ user sales might longer-term cover the temporarily reduced profit you made doing the price discount.

So, bringing in new customers would make Scenario 2 more attractive.

Key lessons from the financial analysis

First, you have to think about the impact of price discounts and sales promotions over the longer term. Sure, they might have short-term benefits to pull in more users when they run. But, think about what happens longer-term. 

How does that change in sales impact future time periods, when you don’t run a price discount? When a shopper buys from you at a price discount, it’s not the same as when they pay full price. 

This brings us to also consider the type of customer. Are those who buy your product on discount likely to stick around on the brand, once the price discount is over?

In most categories, you find a ‘price-conscious’ segment who aren’t brand loyal. They don’t believe there’s much difference in brands. So, they always buy the one which seems the best value. You need to work out if this segment suits your brand positioning.

The role of price discounts in your brand positioning

Your brand positioning is usually summed up with a positioning statement you pull together at the end of the segmentation, targeting and positioning process.

It covers target audience, frame of reference and your point of difference, based on the key benefit, the reason why and the reason to believe. 

Every brand will have a different positioning. However, academic studies suggest they’re heavily influenced by 3 main competitive strategiesThese are known as Porter’s generic strategies after the academic Michael Porter who first proposed them. 

3 steps of the process - Segmentation - divide the total marketing, targeting - pick the most attractive, positioning - build your brand

You can use and adapt these to fit any type of category. The approach you choose influences whether to include price discounts as part of your marketing and sales promotion plans. (See also our e-Commerce positioning article to see how this works for e-Commerce brands).

Cost Leadership

These types of brands aim for mass market appeal. They aim for scale and use both their regular price and price discounts to drive more sales. Their rationale is the more they sell, the more they spread their production costs and improve their margins

Brands who want to compete on cost leadership should clearly use price discounts as part of their marketing mix. They should run more sales promotions, more often. These brands aren’t overly concerned if they pull in price-conscious shoppers who switch around based on price. 

Differentiation

These types of brands aim to identify one or more key product attributes where they can offer uniqueness or superior performance. They identify specific segments that value these attributes. And, they usually justify a price premium to more mainstream (cost leadership) type brands. 

These types of brands will usually do much less in the way of price discounts compared to cost leaders. They may need to do them occasionally to hit short-term sales targets. Or, to fit in with traditional or online retailers‘ marketing activity. But, the price discounts will be less frequent and less deep. 

These types of brands aim to build up a pool of loyal customers based on the quality of the benefit or service. It makes less sense to do price discounts on these types of brands unless something in the context of the brand demands it. 

Niche brands

The final choice is to create unique or niche offers. 

In this case, there’s no scale. It doesn’t usually make sense to run price discounts. The people who buy these types of products will buy them anyway. They aren’t sensitive to the price, as they’re attracted to the uniqueness or rareness of the products.

The only real exception is when there’s a need to drive trial by new users. So, these types of brands might offer price discounts for new users, for example. But not for regular customers, as there’s no incentive or benefit to do so. 

Should you use price discounts as part of your strategy?

Marketing purists will tell you price discounts aren’t a good thing. But sales pragmatists will tell you they’re a necessary tool to shift products when you need to. 

It’s pretty clear, that these views are at 2 ends of a spectrum. You adjust up and down that spectrum depending on the context of your category and business.

If you play in a category, where there’s already a lot of price promotion, and your product doesn’t have a significantly different feature, you may need to suck up more price discounts just to keep sales growing. No shame in that. It’s a normal part of doing business. 

But if it’s your brand and your business, the idea of “giving away” profits to drive sales can be tough. In an ideal world, your brand positioning is strong. Customers will buy you at any price. We’ve worked on a few brands like this, who never offer price discounts. But, they’re the exception rather than the rule. 

For us, it comes back to your market research and your understanding of what drives choice in the market. If trial is important, price discounts can be a great way to drive it.

Think about “lock-in” products like razors and blades, for example. The razors often come with heavy price discounts, so those businesses then make the money back on the sales of the razors.

Look at streaming services like Netflix, and Spotify. They often offer big price discounts for new users, because they know once people try them, they’re unlikely to drop out.

Price discounts - not always your choice

Of course, when you sell through traditional or online retailers, it’s not actually your decision on what the regular or price discount should be. To comply with government fair competition pricing laws, you can only set the (trade) price you sell to the retailer. And you can then only recommend what price the retailer charges to its customers. The retailer sets their own prices. 

The only exception is when you set up your own online store

Here, you’re both maker and seller. You set the pricing strategy. You can set regular price and price discounts to your heart’s content. Marketing technology can even help you target price discounts to specific shoppers. For example, those that added to cart, but then didn’t complete the purchase. 

Conclusion - price discounts

You should definitely consider the role of price discounts in your marketing planning. They’re probably not something you want all the time. But in the right context, they can be very effective. 

If your product is similar to everyone else’s, price discounts can give you a competitive advantage and a temporary point of difference.

Think of them in this case like the gravy you pour on your Christmas turkey. Price discounts add extra flavour to relatively “standard” products. 

A pile of wrapped up Christmas gifts

But, if your product is more distinctive, then go more carefully with price discounts. Ask yourself, if the product is differentiated enough, wouldn’t shoppers buy it on that basis alone? Like an After Eight or a Ferrero Rocher, the price discount might help, but you know they’ll buy it eventually anyway.

And, if your product is niche, and only a few loyal customers ever buy it anyway, there’s no point in price discounts. You won’t attract new customers. And you’ll lose money selling to customers who’ll happily pay full price. In that case, they’re more like the Brussels sprouts on your Christmas dinner. Some people love them and will eat them anyway. But for most people, it doesn’t matter what you do, they’ll never bite. 

Check out our marketing plan guide to see how price discounts fit in with the rest of the marketing mix. Or get in touch, if you need help planning your own price discounts.

Photo Credit

Price Discount : Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Sale : Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

Coins in small piles : Photo by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash

Calculator : Photo by Ray Reyes on Unsplash

Wrapped gifts : Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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