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In August 2019 the Business Roundtable (BR), an association of CEOs of American major corporations, issued a wholly revised “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” (also see in ‘Our Commitment’). It is a complete change in approach of BR for the first time since its statement of 1997 that espoused the concept of ‘shareholder primacy’. In the past six months since then numerous articles and blog posts were published in reaction to the new statement that calls for fuller consideration of interests of different groups of stakeholders; the reactions range from congratulation and appreciation, through doubt and skepticism, to acrimonious criticism and condemnation. This post takes a humble look at the statement from a marketing perspective.

The statement, signed by 181 member-CEOs of BR,  gives a node of agreement to the contribution of businesses to the economy: “Business plays a vital role in the economy by creating jobs, fostering innovation and providing essential goods and services”. But the leading CEOs make a salient declaration in addition: “While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders” (italics added); they subsequently list their commitments to each of the following groups of stakeholders in this order: Customers; Employees; Suppliers; Communities; and Shareholders.

The new stand breaks away from the view that was held in principle by CEOs of BR since 1997 and which regarded the principal purpose of corporations to serve shareholders — hence the concept of ‘shareholder primacy’. The approach taken by BR from 1997 to 2019 contended that: “The paramount duty of management and of boards of directors is to the corporation’s stockholders. The interests of other stakeholders are relevant as a derivative of the duty to stockholders”. That is, the needs and expectations of customers and other stakeholders were made subordinate to those of shareholders (i.e., satisfying the former only if they fit with or do not violate shareholders’ expectations and interests). That view was heavily influenced by the teachings of Milton Friedman.

The commitment made specifically with regard to customers states:

Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.

The headlines of the other commitments include:  “Investing in our employees”; “Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers”; “Supporting the communities in which we work”;  and “Generating long-term value for shareholders”. The theme of the new statement, particularly with respect to customers, may be seen as a replacement of the attitude “generating value for shareholders while delivering value to customers” with the reformed attitude “delivering value to customers while generating value for shareholders” — many would admit that these days the latter sounds more reasonable.

Perhaps the CEOs overstepped themselves in putting ‘shareholders’ in the last place — it does not sound very believable and even a bit apologetic. After all, profitability is like fuel for the business, without it executives and investors lack the motivation or ability to keep the company going for long. Yet from a marketing perspective, and furthermore justified in accordance with a customer-centric approach, customers are fundamental to the purpose of a company — for whom is a company making its products and delivering its services if not for the customers. As an old adage says: with no customers there is no business. Acting for the benefit of customers, employees and their communities can be expected to indirectly generate rewards and long-term value for the company and its shareholders. But if managers and investors are still not convinced, consumers, especially younger ones, become more likely to expect and even require companies to act in a socially-responsible way, giving preference to the goods and services of companies who do so over those which do not.

Nevertheless, the attempt to try and set priorities between the groups of stakeholders may be futile. A company cannot provide for its customers, for instance, without its employees — human capital is vital, and can remain so also with the aid and contribution made by artificial intelligence and robots. Instead of listing the stakeholders in any particular order, it could be more sensible to arrange them on a circle line, maybe in the form of a wagon wheel with the company in the centre and arms leading outwards to each group of stakeholders on the circumference, so as to denote the relationships of a company with its different stakeholders. However, the statement remains vague on how a company should balance between conflicting interests of different groups. The statement concludes by saying: “Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them for the future success of our companies, and our communities and our country” — leaving the challenge to executives in every company how to reconcile and negotiate between interests of different stakeholders.

The updated statement on purpose does not come a moment too early. The recognition of different types of stakeholders, whose needs and interests managers should account for, is at least thirty years old. In a textbook on Marketing Management and Strategy from 2002, Peter Doyle, professor of marketing who taught at Warwick University (UK), named some of these groups, including: shareholders, managers, customers, employees, and creditors. He also argued about the importance of holding more than a single objective for the business, suggesting objectives of profitability, growth, shareholder value, and customer satisfaction.

Furthermore, the attitude of past CEOs at the BR itself had been different before ‘shareholder primacy’ was enshrined in the statement of 1997. As Kristin Bresnahan (Columbia Law School) tells us, the Statement on Corporate Responsibility of BR from 1981 declared that “the long term viability of the business sector is linked to its responsibility to the society of which it is part”.  The statement referred to stakeholders as ‘constituencies’ — it recognised the responsibility of a company to constituencies other than shareholders. Bresnahan suggests seven questions that contemporary executives and directors should contemplate about their responsibilities. So there was a different view in the 1980s prior to the statement of 1997 to which we may now actually return (Directors & Boards, Issue Q3/2019; Bresnahan is Executive Director of the Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership).

  • In the context of the 1981 statement, it is interesting to note a comment that Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, made in an interview with Alan Murray of Fortune following the 2019 statement: “Society gives each of us a license to operate. It’s a question of whether society trusts you or not. We need society to accept what it is that we do.” Murray documents in his cover story the change in attitudes in recent years among CEOs of leading American corporations [“A New Purpose for the Corporation”, September 2019, Alan Murray, Fortune (Europe Edition), pp. 42-48.]

We can relate to two levels that concern consumers: 

At the customer level, consumers may expect first and above all that companies treat them in fairness. That may include, for example, careful and sensitive consideration when and how much to raise prices (e.g., not taking advantage of states of distress or crisis), or flexibility and tolerance in receiving product returns and giving refunds or compensation for damages. More generally, companies are expected to make it easier, not complicated, for consumers to purchase, obtain and use the products and services offered to accomplish their goals and tasks in life. Employees can have an important role in fulfilling the purpose of a company towards its customers — “when employees are presented with customer understanding that enables a deep sense of empathy, they are more apt to act on behalf of the customer and become a proxy for the corporate mission” (Camille Nicita, Forbes [Council Post], 17 October 2019). A success in enacting this attitude depends on culture and values embedded in the working environment of employees, and authority delegated to them to make decisions in favour of customers without asking for permission. This may also exemplify how a better employee experience can be linked to improved customer experience.

At the community level, wherever a company has a presence it may support, for instance, community social centres and cultural projects; more broadly, a company may contribute to protecting the environment (e.g., clean energy, green spaces). Importantly, in local community areas where a company maintains a large store, offices (e.g., managerial HQ, development centre), or a factory, employees in those facilities who are resident in the community would feel greater pride and motivation to do their best for the company and its customers. This can work for the benefit of the company, the employees, and consumers in the community and beyond.

In real life, ideals and expectations do not necessarily materialise. Consumers have difficulty at times in believing a corporate or brand purpose. Without practising it pro-actively, there is concern that the purpose statement, including one as collective as BR’s , is no more than lip service. A brand purpose should be positioned at the ‘right altitude’, suggests Ali Demos (The Drum [Opinion], 3 February 2020), that is in a way that will keep it authentic (e.g., consistent with brand history, personality), believable and trustworthy. An ‘altitude’ that fits the brand may be chosen from the functional level to emotional or social level, close to the ground or more aspirational.  Andrew Winston (Harvard Business Review Online, 30 August 2019) congratulates the initiative of the leading CEOs in issuing the revised purpose statement, but he also raises some doubts. Winston notes that shareholder primacy as a guiding principle cannot solve problems of business and society encountered in America, and it has always had its skeptics; yet, shareholder primacy may not be the real problem but only one of its symptoms. Subsequently, he poses the question: What it will really mean for those major companies to follow the new principles of BR? Winston culminates that the new commitment will be no more than empty rhetoric if we do not “hold these companies to their words”, thereby caring about all their stakeholders.

The CEOs of major American companies could be somewhat late in updating the statement of the Business Roundtable on purpose; but now that it is made public it should be praised, to be used as an example to many companies in the US and worldwide. Notwithstanding, the public should follow-up on these leading corporations, that their CEOs apply their own teachings, with the support of their executive suites and boards of directors. Companies are not asked to be altruistic and deliberately sacrifice value at the expense of their shareholders; the companies (and shareholders) are asked to be willing to give up on some value at present if they can help out in achieving goals of the other groups of stakeholders. In the long term, and if ideals have any validity, then there may be no sacrifice of value but really an enhancement of future value.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Feel Well, Keep Good Health

 

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done has the power of shifting perspective in the areas of marketing and consumer behaviour, customer choice in particular: it advocates changing the focus of marketers from consumers as targets to what the consumers or customers wish to achieve by ‘hiring’ their companies’ products or services. The Jobs to Be Done Theory (or Theory of Jobs in short) is the central theme in the book “Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice” (2016) authored by Clayton M. Christensen (with three colleagues). Christensen, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, passed away in late January 2020 at the age of 67.  His book is one of the more illuminating, and nonetheless captivating, books I have read in the field in recent years; this post is written in tribute to Clayton Christensen and his valued contribution to knowledge and practice.

Christensen is probably known better to many engaged in management for his important, foundational work on disruptive innovation: how enterprises with original and ‘unorthodox’ approaches get to disrupt existing markets and unsettle incumbent companies or non-profit organizations. In many cases the new approach may alter the boundaries defining existing markets. Most often the innovation is technology-enabled, yet it is not all about technology but about a divergent and ingenuine way of thinking. The Theory of Jobs is actually aligned with his previous research: giving an innovative, better answer to a job consumers try to complete, where other solutions failed or disappointed, can cause disruption in a respective market.

Consumers have goals they wish to achieve or tasks they aim to accomplish — a ‘job’ is defined by a task or goal set by the consumer in a certain condition. More punctually, the ‘job’ is the progress consumers are making towards accomplishing their task, or getting the job done. It may often be constituted by a problem the consumer wants to solve. Christensen views consumer needs as something too vague and general, not describing closely enough the issue a customer faces and tries to resolve in a given situation. The job, however, is context-specific, described from the viewpoint of the consumer. The job can have functional, social and emotional aspects or drives that may change with circumstances (e.g., is George driving to work or spending time with his children in the mall? — in each case a milkshake can serve a different job, is Jane looking for something to eat in front of her TV or something to prepare for dinner for her family?)

The approach proposed by Christensen is not entirely new — it is inspired by a concept put forward by Theodore Levitt in the 1960s when criticising ‘marketing myopia’ — it is not the product that is of interest to consumers but what they need it for (e.g., solve a problem) or what they want to do with the product (e.g., people are looking for transportation, not necessarily for trains or cars, one does not buy the electric driller but the hole in a wall that can be made with it, for example to install holders for a shelf). In the same spirit, Christensen suggests that consumers do not buy products or services — they ‘hire’ a product or service to get a particular job done. Furthermore, the job does not dictate any specific type of product — a consumer may consider different types of solutions that lead each to hiring possibly a different type of product or service (e.g., taking a bus, riding a scooter, or walking {shoes}). However, Christensen seems to have evolved such ideas into a much more concrete plan for execution, one that goes beyond abstract needs and preferences to realistic tasks and goals, jobs encountered in specific circumstances in people’s everyday lives.

Customers remain central in the marketing strategies, plans and efforts of companies, but the emphasis of planning and analyses should not be put squarely on the customers and their characteristics (e.g., demographics, personality traits, lifestyles, needs, preferences). From the perspective of Jobs to Be Done, too much attention is given by managers to “who” the customer is, or even to “what” the customer did — the theory is focused  primarily on “why” the customer did something. Marketers have to understand much better the jobs that underlie the eventual choices made by customers. Because if  marketers understand why a certain choice was made, what job led to it in order to make progress, then they (and their associates) might be able to invent or develop an alternative solution (product or service) that customers would consider a better answer for that job the next time it arises. To obtain such understanding, Christensen and his colleagues advise that marketers should observe the behaviour of customers carefully and methodically (with aid of video), and listen to them. They propose five essential elements that should be captured in a struggle of a customer to make progress — what progress, circumstances, obstacles, compensating behaviour, and what makes a better “quality” solution.

A state of struggle is a crucial condition for a company to make impact on a customer’s choice– if a customer does not find himself struggling to get a job done, then one has no reason or motivation to replace his current solution, and is not likely to be open to alternative suggestions and offers. When a struggle does happen, a customer may ‘fire’ a product or service currently in use for the job in progress and ‘hire’ another as a solution to get the job done. Customers may be struggling to complete a job when a product they have so far employed turns out to be inadequate (e.g., terms of the job have changed, not necessarily due to the product’s fault) or its performance is disappointing. The theory seems to be concerned more with situations where the customer is not satisfied by the progress made with available solutions known to him or her and is voluntarily looking for alternative solutions. Additionally, customers may be struggling when they face a job for the first time. Whether a consumer is novice or experienced with a certain type of task or job, he or she may expand the range of product types and brands considered until identifying an apparently suitable solution for completing the job successfully (e.g., from the more usual and familiar options to the more novel and exceptional ones). Customers hire products or services, but may also fire others beforehand, and this can work in favour of a company or against it, thus creating threats as well as opportunities.

Christensen offers five ways where to find and uncover opportunities to create innovative solutions for Jobs to Be Done: (1) Finding a job close to home — gaps may arise in the more essential, daily and ordinary activities and tasks performed by consumers; (2) Competing with nothing — consider non-users who so far avoided tackling an issue or goal they have with available solutions because they believe those to be inappropriate or unsuitable for them — addressing ‘non-consumption’ can awake a new market segment; (3) Workarounds and compensating behaviours — when consumers cannot find a satisfying answer with available products or services offered as solutions they try to improvise and ‘invent’ their own solutions with existing means, often not intended for the made-up application — such cases should be identified to create a ‘tailored’ product-solution; (4) Look for what people don’t want to do — identify ‘negative jobs’ that are necessary but are seen as nuisance or burden (e.g., it comes at the worst time) to offer a relieving service that smoothens or reduces the burden of doing the job; (5) Unusual uses — a product that is consistently and constantly used for a purpose other than intended by the manufacturer may suggest a missing solution for an existing but unrecognised job that may now be fulfilled (this route seems close to the third route above). The five ways are briefly summarised here merely to demonstrate the scope of opportunities that Christensen (with his colleagues) opens up to practitioners to take initiative, not to rely on luck, and create innovative solutions that consumers may appreciate and adopt for their jobs.

The book “Competing Against Luck” is abundant with examples of jobs encountered by consumers and actual products and services developed and created to provide useful (working-functional) and fulfilling (social or emotional) solutions for them. The cases described help to illustrate jobs with different goals and in varying circumstances, and also to demonstrate research and enquiry methods for uncovering the jobs and devising solutions. The products and services cover a wide span of areas and domains for the interested readers to discover (e.g., distant online learning, shopping for matrasses, medical guidance and treatment, lodging, savings for children).

  • A Nugget for Thought: We could contemplate why men are shaving in different ways in the morning. Is M shaving every morning, every other day, or maybe just on weekends? M may be pressed in time for work and he just wants to keep a clean and decent look hassle-free (no time, no cuts, no mess); he can thus leave more time for other duties in the house before going out. His friend L may be keen about a particular look, an exact shape and cut of beard, that fits his self-image or the image he desires to have in the eyes of others (colleagues, friends etc.). We could also think about men who do not shave: N might grow a constant beard for religious reasons, but he may still wish to appear orderly and respectable, maybe even authoritative. The most suitable solution for the job of M may be an electric shaver whereas L may turn to a manual razor; N may be helped for his job by a set of scissors, a trimmer and a small brush. All three men would probably complete their jobs with some form of lotion or cream for their face (and beard). But are there any new devices, toolsets and services that can be made to help M, L, & N get their jobs done to even higher satisfaction and pleasure?

As an exception, I chose to conclude the post with a citation of Clayton Christensen from the chapter of Final Observations in the book “Competing Against Luck”  (p. 231):

I could go on for hours about how the Theory of Jobs helps us see the world in unique and insightful ways. Good theories are not meant to teach us what to think. Rather, they teach us how to think. I encourage you to continue the conversation from here in your home or your office after you put this book down.

I believe that this wish of late Clayton Christensen deserves to be adhered and fulfilled.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference: 

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice; Clayton M. Christensen, with Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S. Duncan, 2016; Harper Business (Harper Collins Publishers).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surge pricing is a variant of dynamic pricing (also known as variable pricing). The dynamics of prices means that prices can now change much more frequently and vary across customers, time and place at ever higher resolution; a price surge or hike at peak moments in demand can be described as an outcome of dynamic pricing. Surge pricing received great attention due to Uber’s application of this strategy, and not least because of the controversial way that Uber implemented it. But dynamic pricing, and surge pricing within it, is a growing field with various forms of applications in different domains.

A price surge is generally attributed to a surge in demand. In the case of Uber, when the number of customer requests for rides (‘hailing’) critically exceeds the number of drivers available in a given geographic area, Uber enforces a ‘surge multiplier’ of the normal (relatively low) price or tariff (e.g., two times the normal price). The multiplier remains in effect for a period of time until demand can be reasonably met. The advantages, as explained by Uber, are that through this price treatment (1) drivers can be encouraged to join the pool of active drivers (i.e., ready to receive requests on Uber app), as well as  pulling drivers from adjacent areas; and (2) priority can be given to a smaller group of those customers who are in greater need of prompt service and are willing to pay the higher price. Consequently, waiting times for customers willing to pay the price premium will be shorter.  (Note: Lyft is applying a similar approach.)

There are some noteworthy aspects to the modern surge pricing. A basic tenet of economic theory says that when demand surpasses the supply of a good or service, its price will rise until a match is reached between the levels of demand and supply so as to ‘clear the market’. Yet the neo-classic economic theory also assumes that the equilibrium price applies to all consumers (and suppliers) in the market for a length of time that the stable equilibrium prevails; it does not account well for temporary ‘shocks’. Proponents of surge pricing argue that this pricing strategy is an appropriate correction to a market failure caused by short-term ‘shocks’ due to unusual events in particular places. There is room in economic theory for more complex situations that allow for price differentials such as seasonality effects or gaps between geographic regions (e.g., urban versus rural, central versus peripheral). Still, seasonal prices are the same “across-the-board” for all; and regions of different geographic markets are usually well separated. On the other hand, in surge pricing, and in dynamic pricing more broadly, it is possible through advanced technology to isolate and fit a price to a very specific group of consumers in a given time and space.

One of the concerns with surge pricing in ride e-hailing is that the method could take advantage of consumers-riders when they have little choice, cannot afford to wait too long (e.g., hurry to get to a meeting or to the airport) or cannot afford a price several times higher than normal (e.g., multipliers of more than 5x). The problem becomes more acute as surge pricing seems to ‘kick in’ at worst times for riders, when they are in distress [1a](e.g., in heavy rain, late at night after a party). The method seems to screen potential riders not based on how badly they need the service but on how much they are willing to pay. The method may fix a problem for the service platform provider more than for its customers. Suppose hundreds of people are coming out at the same time from a hall after a live music concert. If the surge multiplier shown in the app at the time the prospect rider wants to be driven home is too high because of the emerging peak in demand, he or she is advised to wait somewhat longer until it slides down again. How long should riders wait for the multiplier to come down? Often enough, so it is reported, it takes just a few minutes (e.g., minor traffic fluctuations). But in more stubborn situations the rider may be able to catch a standard taxi by the time the multiplier declines, or if the weather permits, walk some distance where one can hail a taxi or get onto another mode of public transport.

Another pitfall is reduced predictability of the occurrence of surge pricing. Consumers know when seasons start and end and can learn when to expect lower and higher prices  accordingly (though it used to be easier thirty years ago). In public transport, peak hours (e.g., morning, afternoon) are usually declared in advance, wherein  travel tariffs could be elevated during those periods. Since surge pricing is based on real-time information available to the service platform provider, it is harder to predict the occasions when surge pricing will be activated, and furthermore the extent of price increase. Relatedly, drastic price changes (e.g., due to high frequency of updates, strong fluctuations) tends to increase the uncertainty for service users [1b].

The extent of price surge or hike is a particular source of confusion. Users are notified before hailing a Uber driver if surge is on, and a surge multiplier in effect at that time should appear on the screen. The multiplier keeps being updated on the platform. It is sensible, however, for the multiplier to stay fixed for an individual rider after the service is ordered. Thus the rider can make a decision based on a known price level for the duration of the ride (or an estimate of the cost to expect). Otherwise, the rider may be exposed to a rising price rate while being driven to destination — but the rider should also benefit if the multiplier starts to slide down (or entering another area where surge is off). The first scenario resembles more a situation of bidding whereas the latter scenario looks more like gambling. Stories and complaints from Uber users reveal recurring surprises and unclarity about the cost of rides (e.g., claims the multiplier was 9x, a ride of 20 minutes that cost several hundreds of dollars, a claim the multiplier dropped but the total price did not go down in accordance). Users may not pay attention sufficiently to the multiplier before hailing a ride, do not comprehend how the pricing method works, or they simply lose track of the cost of the ride (i.e., the charge is automatic and appears later on the user’s account).

Discontent of customers may also be raised by a sharp contrast experienced between the relatively low normal price rate (e.g., compared with a standard taxi) and the high prices produced by surge multipliers [1c].  A counter argument contends that the price hikes or surges allow for low rates at normal times by subsidising them [2]. More confusion about Uber’s pricing algorithm could stem from reports on additional factors that the company might use as input (e.g., people are more receptive of surge prices when the battery of their mobile phone is low, and customers are more willing to accept a rounded multiplier number than a close non-rounded figure just below or above it (MarketWatch.com, 28 December 2017).

  • Not even a strategy of surge pricing appears to be completely immune to attempts of manipulation. It was revealed in 2019 that drivers with Uber (and also Lyft’s) have tried to game the surge mechanism. The ‘trick’ is to turn off the app at a given time in a coordinated manner among drivers, let the surge multiplier rise, and then turn on the app again to gain quickly enough from the higher rate as long as it prevails. The method seems to have been used especially at airports in anticipation of incoming passengers, based on the knowledge of drivers of several flights scheduled to land during a short interval. The motivation for taking this action: the drivers claim they are not paid enough at normal times by the platform operators (BusinessInsider, 14 June 2019).

Uptal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University (also see [1]), suggested four remedies to the kinds of problems described above. First, he advised to set a cap (maximum) on surge multipliers and notify customers more clearly about them (greater transparency). In addition, he recommended curbing the volatility of price fluctuations and communicating better the benefits of the method (e.g., reduced waiting times). Dholakia also raised an issue about a negative connotation of the term ‘surge’ that perhaps should be replaced in customer communications [3].

Various forms of dynamic pricing, including surge pricing, are already utilised in multiple domains. It is noted, for instance, that the strategy of Uber was not initiated to resolve problems of traffic congestion; ‘surge’ may be activated as its result but the purpose is to resolve the interruptions that congestion may cause to the service. For dealing with traffic congestion and overload in roads, other types of surge pricing are being used by public authorities. First, a fast lane is dedicated on a highway or autoroute (e.g., entering a large city) for a fee — the amount of ‘surge’ fee is determined by the density of traffic on the other regular lanes. Drivers who wish to arrive faster should pay this fee that is displayed on a signboard as one approaches entry to the lane (a few moments are allowed to decide whether to stay or abort). Second, a congestion fee, which could actually be a variable surge fee, may be imposed on non-residents who seek to enter the municipal area of a city at certain hours of the day.

As indicated earlier, public transportation systems in large cities may charge a higher tariff during peak or rush hours. The time periods that a raised tariff applies are usually declared in advance (i.e., they are fixed). Peak and off-peak rates may apply to different types of travel fares. The scheme is employed to encourage passengers who do not really need to travel at those hours to change their schedule and not further load the mass transportation system. There is of course a downside to this approach for passengers who must travel on those hours, such as for getting to work (employers who cover travel expenses should set the amount according to the cost of the more expensive rate). Using surge pricing in this case would mean that passengers cannot tell for certain and in advance when a higher tariff applies, but the scale of ‘surge prices’ can be pre-set with a limited number of ‘steps’, and thus reduce resentment and opposition.

Other types of dynamic (variable) pricing involve strong technological and data capabilities, including demand at an aggregate level and customer preferences and behaviour (search, purchase) at the individual level. A company like Amazon.com keeps updating its prices around the clock based on data of demand for products sold on its e-commerce platform. A more specific type of dynamic pricing entails the customisation of prices quoted to individual users-customers (i.e., different prices for the same book title offered to different customers). The approach maintains that a higher price could be set, for instance, for books in a category in which the customer purchases books more frequently and even based on search for titles in categories of interest. This form of price customisation is debatable because it aims to absorb a greater portion of the consumer’s value surplus (i.e., how much value a consumer assigns to a product above its monetary price requested by the seller), raising concerns of unfairness and discrimination. The risk to sellers is of making products less worthwhile to consumers to buy at the higher customised prices. (Note: Amazon was publicly blamed of using some form of price customisation in the early 2000s after customers discovered they had paid different prices from their friends; however the practice has not been banned and it is suspected to be in use by companies in different domains.)

  • Take for example the air travel sector: Airlines may use any of these methods of variable pricing: (a) Offering the same seat on the aircraft at different price levels (‘sub-classes’) depending on the timing of reservation before the scheduled flight: the earlier a reservation is made, the lower the price; (b) Changing fares for flights to different destinations based on fluctuations in demand for each destination and time of flight; (c) There are claims that airlines also adjust upwards the fares on flights to destinations that prospect travellers check more frequently in the online reservation system.

More companies in additional sectors are expected to join by applying varied forms of dynamic pricing. Retailers with physical stores are expected foremost to use dynamic pricing more extensively to tackle the growing challenges they face particularly from Amazon.com in the Western world (e.g., supermarkets will employ digital price displays that will allow them to change prices more continuously during the day and week according to visitor traffic levels). Restaurants may set higher prices during more busy hours at their premises, and hotels are likely to vary their room rates more intensively, taking into consideration not only seasonal fluctuations but also special events like conferences, festivals and fairs (e.g., see “The Death of Prices”, Axios, 30 April 2019).

Dynamic pricing, and surge pricing in particular, is the new reality in pricing policy, with applications getting increasingly pervasive. As technological and analytical capabilities only improve, the pricing models and techniques are likely to be enhanced and become furthermore sophisticated. Moreover, methods of artificial intelligence will improve in learning patterns of market and consumer behaviour, expected to enable companies to set prices with greater specificity and accuracy. At the same time, businesses need to take greater caution not to deter their customers by causing excessive confusion and aggravation. The question then becomes: What bases of discrimination — among consumers, at different times, and in different locations — would be considered fair and legitimate? This promises to be a major challenge for both enterprises that set prices and for the consumers who have to judge and respond to the dynamic prices.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1a-c] “Uber’s Surge Pricing: Why Everyone Hates It?”, Uptal M. Dholakia, Government Technology (magazine’s online portal), 27 January 2016

[2] “Frustrated by Surge Pricing? Here’s How It Benefits You in the Long Run”, Knowledge @Wharton (Management), 5 January 2016. A talk with Ruben Lobel and Kaitlin Daniels at Wharton Management School at the University of Pennsylvania.

[3] “Everyone Hates Uber’s Surge Pricing — Here’s How to Fix It”, Uptal M. Dholakia, Harvard Business Review (Online), 21 December 2015

The checkout area with its cashier counters is normally the last stop of the shopper in a store, when carrying at least one product to buy. It is easy to neglect this location in the store by thinking that the shopper is arriving there just to pay, collect the items purchased (or hand over to delivery), and leave. But there is more that can happen in checkout beyond payment, specifically in making last minute purchases.

As the consumer spends longer time touring a (large) store on his or her shopping trip, the attraction of the checkout area to the shopper increases (in other words, the shopper more strongly desires to end the shopping trip). This phenomenon is particularly associated with shopping in food stores like supermarkets that sell also other grocery and household products. However, it could also prevail in stores for other types of products (e.g., DIY and home improvement, electrics and electronics, fashion), where the retailer displays many and varied items in a layout spread over a wide-area floor (hence any single large floor in a department store may also apply). The longer the shopping trip progresses, the shopper is likely to less engage in exploring sections in the store (supermarket) and to concentrate on buying products (i.e., the shopper will skip entire parts of the store in favour of entering those sections or aisles where he or she intends to choose products to buy). The tendency to gravitate towards checkout tends to grow in response to increased time pressure perceived by the shopper [*]. Such gravitation may be experienced, for instance, when the shopper enters an aisle from the back of the store and feels urged to exit on its other end closer to checkout rather than return to the back of the store and proceed with the shopping trip.

Yet, when the shopper arrives to a cashier counter, time may pause. Especially if one has to wait in line, this creates an opportunity to consider additional purchases.

Firstly, a shopper may choose from products placed next to the cashier counter. Stores often provide multiple options for last minute purchases at hand’s reach. These are  usually inexpensive items easy to pick-up. One may be reminded for instance that he is out of batteries or tissues and take a pack from the nearby stand. The retailer may also put products on special discount (e.g., ‘last-in-stock’ offers, chocolate gifts in advance of holidays) as shoppers access the cashiers for checkout. Then there are the ‘temptations’ shoppers could buy on impulse to spoil themselves (or their children) from a variety of small sweet or salty snacks (e.g., chocolate-coveted waffles, potato chips, chewing gums or candies of different flavours). By the time consumers get to checkout their self-control is more likely to be depleted and they are more prone to make yet another unplanned purchase.

But shoppers seem to make even more extensive considrations and decisions about products situated more far afield while standing in checkout. Waiting gives shoppers the chance to think again if they have forgotten anything, or maybe re-contemplate making an unplanned purchase they rejected earlier. It is not uncommon to see a shopper leaving the shopping cart in front of the counter and going to bring yet another product (if there is enough time one may go and return even twice). Shoppers may furthermore get ideas for unplanned purchases of products from end-of-aisle displays facing the checkout area — from her place in line the shopper may notice a visually appealing ‘invitation’ and make the short walk to pick-up the product and add to the cart or basket.

  • The ‘trips’ shoppers embark on from the checkout area can sometimes be quite long, deep into the aisles, and take a few minutes until they return with the sought out product. It is hard to anticipate what products shoppers may remember as late. Still, a retailer may identify products that are more essential to consumers, and are ‘fast moving’, so as to place them on shelves inside aisles and closer to the checkout area, quick and easy to access.

But the environment in supermarkets is changing, and shopping patterns that were allowed and even encouraged till now could be forced to diminish.

Supermarkets have been removing in the past few years some of their human cashier counters (in some cases about a half), replacing them with self-service cashier stations — each station includes a small counter and a computer-cashier terminal. The stations are positioned in a special checkout court usually in place where counters with human cashiers stood (thus 8 stations can be positioned, for example, instead of 4 human-staffed counters). The human cashier is now actually the customer. This method should decrease the probability of a customer having to stand in line or the number of customers waiting in line for a free self-service cashier station.

In practice the new method is not helpful and workable for every customer — especially older customers (e.g., 65+) and those less comfortable with computers are reluctant to try the self-service cashier counters. Some customers, particularly with full carts, still prefer to be serviced by a skilled human cashier. All these customers can still be found in lines, often longer ones, at the traditional checkout counters. This can frequently be evident at a time that most of the self-service stations are unused. But those stations do get employed, especially by younger customers (e.g., 30 something), and shoppers in a hurry or with just a few items taken out from a basket. Sometimes customers get mixed-up in the process, such as with scanning a product, weighing fruits or vegetables, or getting the product wrongly identified or unrecognised (errors that happen to staff cashiers as well), or having problems with payment. For those cases a permanent customer assistant must be present at all times to help customers resolve their issues and complete the purchase.

Yet, a conspicuous property of new self-service checkout areas could be noticed recently — the area or court is stripped from products anywhere around the stations. A shopper that enters the court may become isolated from the rest of the store. This has a positive aspect in eliminating any distractions from the checkout process done independently by the shopper and can help to hasten the process. There could also be a health benefit, that is by keeping the shopper away from sweets and snacks. However, it also cancels certain shopping habits that were natural, convenient and helpful to the shoppers (and also to retailers). It should not be that much of a nuisance to place a board with some useful and hedonic products next to the self-service stations. In reality, the opposite seems to happen, that is the number of products placed next to traditional cashier counters dwindles. Stands with products on discount deals may still be found in the traditional checkout area, but it may not be on the way, accessible or immediately visible to shoppers who turn to the self-service checkout area.

  • Note: Self-service cashier stations are still hard to find at this time in stores specialising in other product categories and in department stores.

The next stage is the cashier-less store with no discernible checkout area. Checkout is virtual, digital, and happens once the shopper goes out the gate or door. The early springs of this retail model already exist (e.g., Amazon Go convenience stores — “Just Walk Out”). Anything said above about shopping patterns at checkout supposedly would become irrelevant and non-valid. But the cashier-less model is still in its infancy and there are a number of issues to be resolved (e.g., in technology and application of the method) vis-à-vis human shopping behaviour tendencies.

At the moment Amazon Go stores, for instance, are characterised by quick shopping trips (e.g., “take away” prepared meals and other food items and drinks soon to be consumed), and perhaps trips to fill-in essential items missing at home. It is still unclear how the method would work for ‘heavier’ shopping missions. In particular, the methodology appears to apply to pre-packaged items taken off shelves (including in refrigerators), not to items in bulk to be weighed like fruits and vegetables. There seems to be no indication also where shoppers are supposed to move their purchased items into bags to take with them. Furthermore, at a traditional checkout counter you can ask the cashier for any clarifications about prices, discount validity or the final bill (on paper slip and now also on mobile phone). Even at the self-service station one can see on the screen the items and prices that roll as the checkout proceeds. With cashier-less stores, the shopper gets the bill on mobile app (e.g., Amazon Prime) only after leaving the store; then it is not simple to go back and find a representative to ask anything if needed.

These points suggest that a physical checkout area may not become obsolete; an area before exit with support services and counters to re-organise (e.g., before the gates) will remain needed. Perhaps cashier-less stores are simply not ready for performing more consequential shopping. When the model matures, then it should also be possible to place boards with easy-to-pick products that shoppers can grab just before going out through the gate.

The method for checkout is going through transformation, and even greater changes to this process are expected to take place in the future. However, the concept of a checkout area can remain in a new form that will answer to the needs and conveniences of shoppers. More careful thought should be given to modes of human behaviour, such as the benefit of having the time to pause and think over the shopping trip (e.g., accounting for limitations of human memory). The physical checkout area or court may always be the place for receiving human customer support, re-organising before leaving the store, and why not taking a small dark chocolate bar at the last minute on the way out.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[*] Testing Behavioral Hypotheses Using an Integrated Model of Grocery Store Shopping Path and Purchase Behavior; Sam K. Hui, Eric T. Bradlaw, & Peter S. Fader, 2009; Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (October), pp. 478-493 (Herb Sornsen labeled this phenomenon the “checkout magnet” in his book Inside the Mind of the Shopper.)

Also see “Deconstructing the ‘First Moment of Truth’: Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking” by Yui, Huang, Suher, & Inman, 2013 in the Journal of Marketing Research on planned and planned purchases.

Dan is driving in an inter-city road; on the sideline of the road he notices ahead of him a large ad billboard — he is likely to have about a second, maybe even less, to watch and get any details from the ad. Sharon is sitting in her living room, reading a print magazine; in between articles she may glance at full-page ads — she is dedicating perhaps a couple of seconds to any ad that attracts her attention before moving on. Such short durations are critically limiting the amount of information consumers are able to capture and utilise to make inferences and judgements about an ad.

Research of consumer response to advertising more often deals with the decoding of  messages embedded in ads — how consumers gather (by eye fixations) and process pieces of information from the ad, and how they interpret them to derive key points of the message. This process frequently involves reference by the consumers to text and images in the ad, and any relations between them — these are usually thick slices of information to work with. However, consumers’ exposure durations to ads get shorter, meaning they allow for capturing very few pieces of information (e.g., headline and an image or a portion of it) to make inferences — these are thin slices of information.  A quick exposure may be enforced by the display setting (e.g., rotating online ad banners, road billboards) or being the outcome of shorter attention spans (i.e., consumers choose to view any single print ad only briefly).

In three interesting experiments conducted by Elsen, Pieters and Wedel (2016), the researchers examine the implications of  allowing for short exposure durations (i.e., 100ms up to 2 seconds), compared with longer durations [*]. Shorter durations are likely to enable consumers to capture and use only thin slices of information, and probably  also give too little time to elaborate on them. The researchers suggest that short durations can at least permit consumers to correctly infer the identity of the focal product and brand advertised, and that is not something to be discarded.

Elsen and her colleagues test three different identification types of ads: (1) Upfront — identification is straightforward, with the product and brand presented more explicitly in the ad; the ad is similar to other ads in the same product category and dissimilar from ads in other categories. (2) Mystery — the product in this type of ad could appear in a more sublime way or be implicit within an artful design (visual rhetorical figure); the ad is atypical to its category, dissimilar from ads in the same product category, but also dissimilar from ads in other categories. (3) False Front — the product in this ad format could be disguised by presenting the product in a context of another type of product  (e.g., a metaphor rhetorical figure, such as a bottle of drink presented as if it were a bottle of fragrance); this ad is atypical in being dissimilar from other ads in its product category while being similar to ads in a different category than its own. The brand usually takes a less central place in a mystery or false front ad.

The mystery and false front types of ads are considered more difficult to identify the product than in an upfront ad. An upfront ad is easier to process because it follows a schema familiar to consumers for that category (e.g., including typical perceptual features). The mystery and false front ads are more difficult to interpret but in somewhat different ways. Both types apply a form of artful expressive figure, yet the false front ad could be more confusing (e.g., whereas a mystery ad may include a product of another type positioned in relation to the focal product, the false front would show in front the focal product as if it were another type of product {substitution}). Both ads may build on a relationship between a focal product and another product, yet assuming a different kind of relationship. The implication for the false front ad is that consumers need to switch schemas by which they process and interpret the ad content and identity of the product (i.e., they are likely get at first a wrong impression of what product is upfront, and it takes longer to comprehend what product is actually being advertised).

In a very brief exposure (100msec, less than a typical fixation), consumers can consciously grasp the gist of the ad scene; they can also identify a typical product if it appears centrally and straightforward.  This permits them to hold a more positive attitude towards the upfront ad compared with their attitudes towards mystery or false front ads. The attitude towards the false front ad seems to be somewhat more positive compared with the mystery ad, although not as significantly as the researchers expected — while the focal product may appear obvious in the false front ad, the scene is still not much easier to grasp than in a mystery ad. Yet, as exposure durations extend longer than two seconds, the differences in processing and evaluating the mystery and false front ads become more striking.

An exposure of half a second (500ms) allows for two fixations at two spatially-distinct locations in the ad and processing the information in them; it has been identified as closely the average exposure duration for outdoors ads. A two-second exposure allows already for fixating and processing a few more pieces of information throughout the ad; this is the average duration that consumers have been observed to attend to (fixed) display ads. The findings indicate that from 500ms onwards the attitude towards mystery ads is climbing and the attitude towards false front ads is in decline; it is however at about two seconds of exposure that attitude towards mystery ads closes the gap and becomes more positive than towards false front ads, and further on approaches the level of attitude towards upfront ads (after 10 seconds of exposure).

After exposures longer than 5-10 seconds it becomes apparent that an early impression about the product identity in a false front ad was illusory, and possibly following the realisation of their mistake, consumers seem to turn their evaluation in disfavour of the ad. On the other hand, mystery ads seem to be more positively intriguing, where demystified viewers who decode the “story” in the ad and figure out the product and brand identity become more in favour of the ad. (Note: Changes in attitude towards the ad transfer to changes in brand attitude though with weaker magnitude.)

Our understanding of these findings can be strengthened by considering the intervening effects of consumer knowledge: the feeling that one knows what product (and brand) the ad is for (subjective knowledge) and the accuracy of the inference or conclusion reached by the viewer (objective knowledge); furthermore important is how well subjective and objective knowledge match or calibrate.  Very quickly (after 100ms exposure) ad viewers have a strong feeling they know what type of product is being advertised, and indeed they are found correct (i.e., their knowledge is calibrated). For mystery ads, viewers are in clear difficulty of identifying correctly the product being advertised after brief exposures of 100ms, yet they seem to be aware of this difficulty as they feel quite uncertain about the product identity (i.e., their knowledge is also calibrated).  Objective knowledge with regard to mystery ads seems to improve sooner (at exposure of 500ms) than subjective knowledge, but in any case after two seconds viewers generally get it right, and feel more confident about it. It means that even in mystery ads, two seconds are likely to be sufficient to correctly identify the product being advertised.

With false front ads the situation is rather different: Ad viewers quickly (as early as 100ms) come to believe they know well what type of product is actually being advertised, while in fact they are as wrong as in the case of mystery ads (i.e., knowledge is not calibrated). After just 500ms the situation already improves, and after two seconds they could be on the right track, knowing better what product the ad is for and feeling confident about their conclusion — only that they likely had to change their course of thinking in order to arrive to a new and different conclusion about the product than they had thought before. The analyses of Elsen, Pieters and Wedel further show that the influence of ad types on viewers’ attitudes towards ads is mediated (‘explained’) by the subjective feeling of knowledge, not the accuracy of knowing the product identity. As consumers have more time to verify their inferences and feel successful in decoding the ad, at least identifying the product and brand, they are more likely to develop a higher favourable attitude towards the ad (and brand). Since in false front ads this verification process is more likely to fail and consumers need to rectify their conclusion, their ad attitude is likely to suffer.

  • Note: Certainty about the brand is low for mystery and false front ads after 100ms, and it is also relatively low for upfront ads vis-à-vis product identity; as exposures get longer the gaps in certainty narrow until conversion at 10 seconds of exposure (accuracy for brands is not measured)  — thinking about the specific brand may occur later than the product, and the brand placement may also be less central in the ad.)

Elsen et al. challenge a claim made by other researchers that longer exposures to ‘standard’ upfront ads would lead to a less favourable attitude because they are perceived as boring and routine. They argue instead that consumers-viewers who feel able to confirm their identification of the product (relatively easily) after a little more time of inspecting the ad might making them really more satisfied and favourable towards the ad. The attitude towards upfront ad remains quite stable at a high level over exposure durations. In Experiment 1 the attitude seems to drop a little as exposures get longer (up to 30 seconds), suggesting that after five seconds and longer, viewers do get bored by straightforward ads, but the estimated trend was not statistically significant. However, Experiment 3 revealed that the attitude towards upfront ads even improves after allowing for exposures of up to about 7 seconds. The results suggest that five seconds could be more than enough to interpret what the ad is about and identify the product advertised in an upfront ad; and if somewhat more time is given, this can only help the consumer to confirm an initial feeling he or she knows what product is advertised, thus contributing to the positive attitude towards the ad.


 

Distinguishing between mystery and false front ads is not clear-cut.  It can take a few seconds to realise what kind of rhetoric figure is being used and to understand the “story” being told in either a mystery or false front ad. The problem is that the identity of the product is often intertwined with the message, so that identifying the product requires at least partly interpreting the message (e.g., in a metaphor where an attribute of another product type or object is projected onto the focal product). I therefore suspect that the recommendation of the researchers that it is somehow possible to separate between tuning the ad identity (“what is promoted”) and tuning the ad message (“how it is promoted”) might be easier said than done. Elsen and her colleagues propose that “combining upfront identification with specific creative message templates might be particularly effective in cluttered media environments in which exposure durations are short” (p. 575). While accepting this recommendation, one should take into consideration that the ad may cease being truly “upfront” to the consumers-viewers, and could take longer to interpret and extract the product identity from the creative message.

It is not suggested to avoid false front ads but to acknowledge that they are more risky. If they apply a metaphor, it may take closer to ten seconds rather than two seconds to understand the situation and identify the product correctly; actually there is no guarantee that the viewer will “get it” even after ten seconds. The viewer might leave the ad happy after a brief exposure but associating it with a wrong product. The risk additionally is that the viewer may feel being fooled after realising the true product identity or frustrated of not being able to realise it after a few seconds, and that is manifested in the results about the ad attitude in all three experiments.

The important lesson is to evaluate in what conditions it is most suitable and effective to use each of these ad types. A duration of two seconds appears to be a significant threshold. There is little point in being too clever and showing mystery or false front ads neither on road billboards nor in digital display environments (e.g., Internet, apps) when the ad display rotates and every ad is replaced after a brief period (e.g., 1-2 seconds). Mobile devices in use, particularly smartphones, and screen displays that exhibit a strong competition between content and advertising can be especially challenging environments for the more creative and clever ads. Achieving product and brand identity through simple upfront ads would be a justified and reasonable goal in those circumstances. In other conditions, print and digital, and specifically when the ad is static, there should be greater flexibility for the advertiser to choose from the full spectrum of upfront, mystery, and false front ads (e.g., a mystery ad type could succeed if at least 3-4 seconds of showing an ad between webpages pass before the target page loads or the viewer is given an option to proceed to the target page after that duration). Moreover, grades of creativity may be applied to captivate attention in more cluttered and competitive media environments (consider also pedestrian areas in cities).

Gaining consumer identification of the product and brand in ads is vital and important. But it would be a loss and spoil if advertisers and advertising professionals stop aspiring for higher goals with more creative and clever rhetorical figures and designs. The research of Elsen, Pieters and Wedel highlights the need to choose wisely when and where it would be more suitable and effective to employ a straightforward or a more creative and clever ad design.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Note:

[*] Thin Slice Impressions: How Advertising Evaluation Depends on Exposure Duration; Millie Else, Rik Pieters, & Michel Wedel, 2016; Journal of Marketing Research, 53 (August), pp. 563-579 (DOI: 10.1509/jmr.13.0398).

 

 

 

For over four decades after the Second World War, TV sets had to be connected to antennas to receive broadcast TV programming (i.e., by air) from national media networks. In the two last decades of the 20th century, connections have shifted to networks of cable and satellite TV companies (the shift started earlier in the US; some households connected to private satellite dishes).  Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, TV connections move again, this time to broadband Internet to receive TV video content by streaming, including TV programmes and films. Moreover, video content can be streamed for viewing on Smart TVs, computer screens (desktop/portable), and on screens of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), via wired or wireless connections (though wired is still advantageous for TV content). What counts for “TV” is more fluid and it is no longer bound to TV sets in the classic form.

The streaming market for TV content is entering lately a new stage of transition. The competition is getting tougher and more crowded as ‘old-new’ players (i.e., established media networks) are entering or stepping up their involvement in streaming of full-programme video content. Netflix has set an example, and a challenge, to the more ‘traditional’ TV companies since 2007, when Reed Hatsings identified the potential of broadband Internet for streaming film content and faded-out Netflix’s model of mailing DVDs to customers. Over the past decade Netflix kept an advantage, though the gap from competitors (e.g., Hulu, HBO-Now, Amazon Prime Video) has been narrowing down. The latest developments, as discussed below, pose a more serious threat already to the business model and status of Netflix, expected to make it much more difficult for Netflix to stay on top. But the overall growing streaming activity by technology and media companies should worry nonetheless the cable and satellite TV companies of the previous generation from the 20th century.

Netflix offers to its subscribers a variety of films (movies) and TV shows, but its prestige relies particularly on its original in-house productions. Its TV series may be found in multiple genres: TV dramas (e.g., Riverdale, The Crown), Comedies, TV Sci-Fi, Crime TV Shows, Anime Series, TV Horror, Documentaries, and Kids & Teen TV. Some series are known also outside the circles of its customers; among its popular series Netflix lists, for instance, Stranger Things.

However, Netflix gives its subscribers access to view many TV programmes from other companies, including highly popular series from the American national networks, and henceforth difficulties are starting to pile up. As media companies like NBCUniversal and Disney (which are tied together) are about to launch new streaming services, they become more protective of their in-house content productions and intend to block competing streaming services from offering their programmes and films. The Walt Disney Company is additionally now in full control of Hulu streaming service (through its acquisition of 21st Century Fox in March 2019). Furthermore, HBO which currently operates the streaming service HBO Now is in ownership of WarnerMedia (AT&T), under its Entertainment division; HBO is preparing to launch HBO Max in 2020, a new on-demand TV service by streaming.

A battle over rights, especially exclusive rights, to screen video content of films and TV programmes between companies of different orientations is unfolding, and this situation signals trouble for a company like Netflix. For example, Netflix had to pay a gargantuan sum of $100 million to continue to screen Friends on Netflix during 2019, but next year the series will move to HBO’s streaming platform as it launches HBO Max. Friends, the sitcom series from the 1990s, has been very popular among Netflix’s customers, since it started showing in 2015, thus putting pressure on the company to keep it, for as long as they could. In attempt to compensate, Netflix committed to pay a considerable sum of half a billion dollars to secure rights to screen Seinfeld (its ‘spin-off’ comic series Curb Your Enthusiasm by Larry David, that is considered more favourable outside the US, will remain an exclusive of HBO Max). Also, the American version of the originally British satirical series The Office that is still available in Netflix’s library will be reserved from 2020 to the new NBC’s streaming service, NBC Peacock. Such difficulties may force Netflix to rely even more on  new and original materials, but investors are debating if those materials, being expensive to obtain, can provide sufficient return to be profitable (“Netflix Feels the Pressure as Competitors Circle“. BBC News, 17 October 2019).

The streaming service Hulu provides primarily original content of NBC and Fox. Its library includes categories of Hulu Originals, Movies, Current and Past Seasons of TV Series, and Kids. Yet Hulu has an additional facet: it avails a service of real-time TV programming. Hulu offers a basic plan, Hulu (for $5 per month), that allows streaming content from its library (with ads) and an enhanced plan, Hulu + Live TV (for $45 per month), that includes 60 TV channels (American), VOD channels and DVR for recording.  As noted above NBC and Fox are actually owned by Disney, which in turn is set to launch in November 2019 a streaming service called Disney+. The Disney Plus service will specialise in films and programmes from Disney’s own studios, plus Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars (Lucasfilms), and National Geographic, and a large selection of Disney classics as well. Yet from a different corner, NBC is going to launch NBC Peacock in April 2020 that on its part will offer TV shows and series of NBC network, films from Universal Pictures and DreamWorks studios, and it promises to provide for viewing more cinema films from Hollywood bigger studios (NBC Press Release, 17 Sept. 2019). It is said to be supported by both advertising and subscription (not clear at the moment if it will be available outside the US/North America). It will be interesting to see how the Walt Disney Company allocates and manages content for viewing across the three streaming services in its control: Disney+, Hulu, and NBC Peacock. It is not unimaginable that one of them will become redundant due to overlap and internal competition.

More concerning is the intention of Disney to preserve for its own streaming services the rights to screen video content, past and present, from the various studios it controls. The company is expected to forgo $2.5 billion in revenue by removing Disney content from rival services [Adam Lashinsky in Fortune Magazine, May 2019 *]. Additional revenue is likely to be lost by taking off also content of NBC and Fox from the libraries of rival services, such as Netflix. Lashinsky raises alarm over this plan of the Disney company because of the financial harm foreseen to be endured; the big question is: will it pay off in the long run by attracting enough viewers-customers keen on watching Disney video content. Competitors will suffer some headache in filling the gap by bringing content from new productions and alternative sources; will their customers miss the withdrawn content enough to switch or to subscribe to an additional service to get access to the ‘worlds’ of Disney, NBC or Fox?

Amazon Prime Video service is challenging Netflix for a while now, especially in investment in original productions. The Prime Video service offers original Amazon TV productions next to TV series from other TV providers (e.g., HBO, CBS), in addition to categories of Movies and Kids. A title ‘Amazon Original’  is flagged upon image frames of programmes credited to Amazon. Multiple genres are available: Drama, Comedy, Kids & Family, Action & Adventure, Documentary, Animation, International, and more. Members of the Prime Video club can view much of the content for no additional fee. The video content can be watched from the Web and with Amazon Prime Video app on mobile devices, with set-top boxes, and on selected Smart TVs. The competition of Amazon with Netflix would become more intense if the more veteran media companies pull content out from their video libraries.

Apple, a prime technology company, is increasing its involvement in the field of TV media with the combination of its Apple TV app and the upcoming Apple TV+ streaming service (November 2019). Apple also will not be shy in investing in original productions. The Apple TV+ service will bring new original stories of Apple (e.g., The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon; the latter already appears with Nicole Kidman in a successful series “Big Little Lies” of HBO). The original programmes will show on top of programmes and films from different premium channels, streaming services (but not Netflix), and cable providers; all can be watched with the Apple TV app on the company’s mobile devices, computers and smart TVs (CNet.com, 16 October 2019).

  • The plans of Netflix range in price from $9 (Basic) to $16 (Premium) per month.  The plans of Hulu exhibit two price extremes ($5 — $45), with advertising on the one hand and Live TV on the other.  Disney is said to charge $7 per month ($70 for a year paid in advance); it promises the service will deliver at a technical (HD) and content quality of the Premium plan of Netflix. The expected starting fee for Apple TV+ is $5 per month. Subscription to Amazon Prime Video seems to require a membership fee of $9 and then $13 per month paid monthly or $119 for a year paid in advance.

Cable and satellite TV companies face a difficult competition from TV streaming services that give viewers great flexibility with often high quality programming content. The streaming option gives a new leverage to the established TV networks and media companies to attract viewers for starting customer relationships directly with them. But the cable and satellite TV providers can still hold an important advantage: bringing a widespan variety of content of different styles and flavours from different sources, not committing to a single external production house, in addition to their own productions. Furthermore, many TV viewers are still likely to want to watch real-time (‘linear’) TV programmes (e.g., news). The TV channels should include channels of the viewer’s own country as well as optional channels from other countries and in other languages. National TV networks already provide an option to view their programmes by streaming on the Internet: live as they show in TV schedule and recorded (e.g., BBC iPlayer allows UK residents to watch programmes of BBC1 to BBC4 channels on demand); some programmes may be viewed for free and some by paid subscription. Newspapers are also producing more video stories for streaming.

However, cable and satellite TV providers should re-consider their models of service and allow much more flexibility of choice of channels by building greater modularity into their TV service plans. Video-on-Demand (VOD) and recording (DVR) services are desirable and appreciated but they are not enough. There is little point left these days in offering ‘basic’ plans with 100+ channels for a high monthly fee when people regularly watch only a small fraction of them. In the age of customization, TV viewers-customers should be given more freedom in building their own bundles of TV channels. More of the company’s income can come from the fees on ‘packets’ or sub-bundles of channels customers add-on to a low-cost basic plan, yet customers will then know they are paying for channels they are truly interested watching (e.g., news and documentaries, classic cinema films 1940s-1980s, British / French / Italian TV, vintage TV series 1960s-1980s, animation, and so on). The sub-bundles should be small and focused.

Building fences around original TV content of one company and barring streaming services of other companies from offering those programmes will not benefit anyone, neither on the provider side nor on the customer-viewer side. A TV service provider can differentiate itself by protecting the exclusivity of a greater part of its original video content (as ‘anchors’) while allowing a flavour of it to be experienced by customers of its competitors. It is no less logical doing so than licensing rights to other broadcast TV networks, cable and satellite TV providers to screen their programmes. Content has to be shared between the TV service providers, for the appropriate credit and fee.

Television viewers are looking more afar and broadly across the TV spectrum to find the kinds of programmes they wish to see in the few hours they have spare to watch TV. But there is probably a limit to the number of different streaming sources they will be ready to subscribe to in order to access a satisfying variety of programmes and films for viewing. Adding streaming services will not help if they become too secluded. That is why cable and satellite TV providers can still have an advantage, yet they need to give more flexibility of choice to their customers. To gain the awareness and interest of TV viewers in the series and films produced by media and TV companies, they have to share their works instead of raising fences between them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Note:

[*] “Disney’s Latest Blockbuster Isn’t in Theaters”, Adam Lashinsky, Fortune Magazine, 1 May 2019, 179 (5), pp. 5-6.

Anyone who has been to a trade fair, as those taking place usually on weekends in villages, small towns and some big cities, would know the kind of treasure goods one can find there: woodcraft decorative figurines (e.g., animals), dolls and puppets, handmade kitchenware, glassware (sculptures, vases etc.), knitting and embroidery articles, fashion accessories, and much more (including some local food products). A great part of the products sold in the fair are handicraft made by local and regional residents who present their creations to visitors. Often it is possible to find in such fairs also vintage items from years past (e.g., cameras, radio sets, coins). Now, consider shopping, or hunting, these kinds of treasures in an online marketplace.

Etsy offers an online marketplace similar in concept as described above: it is a special type of e-commerce website for handcrafted and vintage goods, where the sellers are small and independent entrepreneurs who interact directly and sell their merchandise to buyers in the virtual marketplace of Etsy, and then ship the sold goods to their destinations. So a buyer will not find there food products (e.g., homemade jams or local cheese) but he or she can find on Etsy.com a great variety of handmade and vintage goods beyond what is usually presented in any single physical fair (e.g., larger items of furniture that are more difficult to bring to a physical fair). It is not the same experience as strolling between counters in a physical fair, looking for ‘treasures’, but browsing handcrafted and vintage goods in an online marketplace like Etsy offers its own advantages and opportunities in  (almost) immediate access.

Etsy hosts 2.3 million active sellers (all must be registered members) and 47.2 million active buyers (membership is voluntary) as of the end of June 2019 (an increase of 17.7% and 19.3%, respectively, from same period last year). On Gross Merchandise Sales (GMS) of $2.1bn made in its marketplace in the first half of 2019, Etsy has generated a revenue of $350.4m (74% revenue from marketplace fees and 26% from seller services). While GMS increased by 20% from H1/2018, revenue increased by almost 40% (Etsy, Press Release, 1 August 2019). The company provides a platform for a community of sellers to trade their handcrafted creations or vintage goods worldwide. The ‘community’ is a cornerstone of its whole activity. Etsy also cherishes interactions between people (“connecting humans”) as the basis for commerce — its headline calling is to “Keep Commerce Human”. While the company is aiming to maintain the intimacy, reliability and convenience customers expect from a community, it wants to provide these benefits with the efficiency of a large corporation [Fortune: A; Etsy: About]. Making those ends meet seems like a non-negligible challenge.

Shopping for handmade products or vintage products has a special motif: it often gives consumers the feeling of treasure hunting. The pleasure in finding sought-for products as such only increases as they become less common in the world of modern (automated) production and marketing. The product item has to be useful, yet an emotional appeal can be further more important as a driver for buying the product.

Handicrafts are desired for being perceived authentic and genuine. People value the talent, skills and effort invested in their making. They like the human touch in both making the product and personally selling it to them by the person who made the product. Moreover, many of the handmade products are artisanal (e.g., woodwork, glasswork) and may exhibit an exceptional quality. Buying such a product is often considered a gesture of appreciation and a way of making a contribution to the creator.  Vintage products (especially from 1920s to 1960s) may hold a somewhat different attraction: They are associated with the past period of time they originate from (e.g., nostalgia, personal memories from childhood); different, possibly higher standards of quality; different ways of doing things (e.g., listening to music, cooking, taking photos); and vintage ‘treasures’ are also likely to be much less available in the market and even being rare. Vintage products may be handcrafted but that is neither a requirement nor their main source of value to the prospect buyers. (Note: Handcrafted artefacts may be made using just low-tech machinery and tools).

The pages on the website of Etsy appear spacious and bright. Items (text bodies, pictures) are placed over a white background, and the pages do not seem to be condensed and crowded with them. Some areas may be painted in pastel colours (e.g., as background for text on the homepage). This design endows the website with a soft and light feeling, and makes it easier for the eye to move around and observe product listings, pictures and other information on pages. There are very few product listings with images on the homepage, used for illustration rather than out-right promotion; a ribbon with images of products most recently viewed by the visitor appears on top of the homepage and on other pages, exercising relevance and convenience.

Six main categories are displayed in the top menu: Jewelry & Accessories; Clothing & Shoes; Home & Living; Wedding & Party; Toys & Entertainment; and Art & Collectibles. A drop-down menu with sub-categories can be ‘pulled’ from each of these main category items. However, on category pages the visitor also can see tiles for subcategories with sample images, and a sample of product listings in the category. Visitors can narrow down their search by using a key list on the left-hand side of the screen. For any category and sub-category, a visitor-shopper can choose to see all available products in that class or select to focus on either handmade or vintage products in that class (an additional item on the top menu labeled Vintage allows quick access for those interested only in vintage products).

Three basic information elements appear on each product page: a title describing the product, price, and a photo image. In addition, three more components are noteworthy: (1) Handmade products (e.g., a TV stand with cabinet, mid-century modern, made of oak wood) are accompanied by a description on materials and ways of their application, modes of use, design trend, dimensions, etc. For vintage products (e.g., antique Teddy Bear from the 1930s, Dutch Arthur van Gelden), the viewer may find a background story on the artefact, materials, history, any versions if available, etc. (2) Sellers offering their own handmade goods may provide options for personalisation (e.g., first name, a phrase, and photograph in picture frames and displays) and customization (e.g., type of wood, surface finish- colour and texture , size, and extra features for furniture). Furthermore, additional images may show the product from different angles and in different versions that can be customized to the preference of the prospect buyer. (3) The page is set to include reviews contributed by buyers regarding the product purchased and any aspects of their relationships of exchange with the seller.

The complementary information in words and pictures may fulfill an important role in persuading visitors who view a product page to complete a purchase order. Giving a visitor the flexibility to make adjustments (modest as they may be) to the product to better fit his or her needs and preferences can only strengthen the shopper’s conviction to buy. Victor Yocco (‘A List Apart’, 1 July 2014) well-explains in his article key implications of the central and peripheral routes to persuasion (in the Elaboration Likelihood Model [B]) for e-commerce websites. He stresses the importance of including cues that may be applied at different levels by visitors who browse pages, process and evaluate product offerings through a central route or peripheral route. In the case of Etsy, we may distinguish between visitors who get their impressions and make judgement based on the images and reviews, and perhaps use price also as a cue for quality (peripheral route), and those visitors who extensively and carefully consider the technical details and background of the product offered, and may also inspect the images provided in greater attention (central route).

Etsy enables prospect buyers to engage in conversation with sellers and make queries before a purchase, and it encourages such interactions (e.g., buyers tell in their reviews about satisfying enquiries they have had with sellers who were particularly helpful in their responses). Sellers can use a community forum to consult and discuss any matters that concern their activities from craftmanship to e-commerce. Furthermore, Etsy publishes workshops it offers to sellers in different disciplines of craftmanship, and a special section of the website is dedicated to craft supplies and tools, thus extending its hand to help entrepreneurs-sellers in their creative work. Shipping, however, is in the responsibility of the sellers, and trust between them and their buyers-customers can be particularly crucial at that stage of the exchange.

Some recent initiatives taken by Etsy could be a more delicate matter and a source of friction. For instance, the company started encouraging sellers in the US to offer free shipping in the country. It provides some guidance and assistance in shipping, but a question hangs as to how Etsy actually facilitates and makes it easier for American sellers to offer free shipping (e.g., does it give any ‘subsidy’ to the seller, or should the seller raise the product price, or absorb the extra cost alone?). Without practical support in shipping, the legitimacy of asking sellers to eliminate shipping costs is weak. Etsy has also taken action to improve the payment functionality. At first it was a matter of ensuring to buyers the confidentiality of their payment information. Next, however, sellers were required to use only the payment platform of Etsy. That has allowed Etsy to collect commissions that had previously gone to other payment providers. While this initiative helped in standardizing the checkout procedure and improved customer service, it also led to raising the commission rate sellers are charged from 3.5% of revenue per transaction to 5% [A]. A third initiative involves a new programme of advertising for sellers in co-operation with Google — sellers who join in an advertising plan can get their product offers promoted or prioritised inside the platform (e.g., in displays of product listings) and outside (i.e., in Google search results). This would create two classes of sellers that did not exist before.

Etsy under the leadership of its CEO Josh Silverman (since 2017) is set to put more emphasis on quality over price, reports Wahba in Fortune. At a time when online retail is primarily concerned with low prices and price promotions, it is suggested as remarkable that Etsy succeeded in cultivating loyalty. First, by its focus on handcrafted goods and small businesses, Etsy succeeded in making its marketplace feel like a community, but it still aims to deliver with greater business efficiency. Second, Etsy intends to give greater weight to higher-priced and better-quality products in search rankings (a change from how its search engine worked so far) with an aim to elevate the image of Etsy’s brand to an upscale status. Etsy also expects to encourage shoppers to level-up their purchases with complementary products (e.g., if one wishes to buy a lamp for a desk, consider also buying a desk). [A]

Etsy offers a special type of online commerce: bringing the richness, spirit and originality of a trade fair for handcrafted and vintage goods to consumers’ homes. It is not only the attraction of the goods, but also the experience of browsing collections and finding precious treasures, and the interaction with small businesses of independent entrepreneurs and creators (‘people more like us’ the shoppers might say). Etsy has seen success in improving its business performance since early 2018 and is ambitious to move ahead in strengthening its online marketplace. However, Etsy will have to take extra care not to lose the friendliness and comfort of its marketplace and community, for the pleasure of treasure hunting.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

Note:

[A] “Crafting a Comeback at Etsy”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), August 2018 [Global 500], 180 (2), pp. 31-33

[B] “Central and Peripheral Routes to Advertising Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Involvement”; Richard E. Petty, John T. Cacioppo, & David Schumann, 1983; Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (Sept.), pp. 135-146