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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

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Everything happens faster in the fashion world. Fashion houses and retailers have to deal with an increasingly turbulent market wherein trends and tastes fluctuate all the time and design styles replace each other in ever shorter cycles. This instability means greater uncertainty for firms, which makes it harder for them to plan and operate through the year. Attempting to curb the motion and introduce more stability can be a serious challenge for the fashion designers, marketers and retailers; the stream is strong, and more often it seems that everyone has to continue flowing to the next fashion style. Retailers with physical stores face an additional challenge from strengthening e-commerce — consumers prefer to buy more clothing items online, especially from whatever source and channel they can find them at lower prices.

Castro is a leading fashion house and retailer in Israel with over 130 stores carrying its name (i.e., Castro, Castro Men, and Castro Kids) across the country. The Castro company  was established by Aharon Castro in 1950. Its retail start was modest, and the business continued to be primarily a fashion house, designing and making garments (for women only), until the late 1980s. In 1985 the founder opened a flagship store on the modern Dizengof shopping street of Tel-Aviv; that may be considered a first brave move to lift-up the image of the Castro fashion brand and earn it more publicity.

In the early 1990s Aharon Castro passed the realm of the company to his son-in-law Gabriel (Gaby) Rotter, joined later by his daughter Esther (Etty) Rotter, and they have been serving as co-CEOs since then. The second period of Castro is marked by the great expansion of the retail arm of the business. More and more stores were opened in the 1990s and 2000s (Castro also made a venture abroad, mainly in Germany, but it was unsuccessful and largely cut-off). In this period the prevailing brand image of Castro was also invented, which gave it fame and appreciation. The last decade has seen more acquisitions of fashion enterprises (clothing and accessories) made by the company, but these do not carry the Castro name and therefore have less bearing on the Castro brand. In summer 2018 Castro merged with the fashion group Hoodies, and the repercussion of this move is yet to be seen, whether the brands mix or remain separated.

Listed below are selected actions that contributed more significantly to establish the prime attributes associated with Castro, exciting and daring, since the 1990s:

Castro aired a famed TV commercial in 1993 that was daring, playful and igniting the imagination — it is best simply to watch it.  Two more facts make this commercial special: (a) It was aired in the beginning of commercial TV in Israel, when the audience was highly curious and interested in advertising in this medium, which helped the commercial to become a “hit”; (b) The song featuring in the commercial was Creep by Radiohead, during the early stage of its musical career, so the commercial gave a unique exposure to Radiohead in Israel. Definitely in those days this Castro commercial was unusual and exciting (until today it is the most loved commercial in the country); it drove great attention and interest in the coats and other clothing products of Castro, and put it on a trail of growth.

In the early 1990s Castro moved into the pivotal shopping centre of Tel-Aviv (Dizengof Centre). Moreover, Castro situated its store near the entrance to the major department store of that time (HaMashbir), a sound call of challenge. A decade later, in 2003, Castro relocated within the shopping centre and opened its flagship store Castro Tel-Aviv, occupying three floors, with an external façade that turns to a strategic corner of streets with high exposure — a strong declaration of their presence. At least for several years it was an important anchor in the shopping centre.

Castro gradually started to enter clothes for men into its stores. Over time the fashion house expanded the scope of its target segments to become a marketer and retailer of clothing for men and women, youth and kids. On the retail side, Castro made two key moves: in 2000 it launched its sub-chain of Castro Men stores, and in 2013 the Castro Kids sub-chain of stores came to life. Perhaps already less exciting to consumers, but they are still daring moves (a demonstration of force).

However, the expansion of Castro’s activities, particularly adding stores to its retail chain, seems to have taken a toll from the company. It is hard to put a finger on a single factor as the cause of recent troubles at Castro. It appears, yet, that the toll has hit primarily Castro as a fashion house. From some point in the passing decade, consumers have been losing interest in the garments of Castro. In earlier decades, Castro led by its founder gained a reputation for creativity, for bringing new designs and quality fabrics (important especially in the 1960s and 1970s, credit going also to Aharon’s mother Nina). Consumers may have stopped believing that Castro’s clothing expresses creativity, novelty and ingenuity. Nonetheless, the needs and tastes of Israeli consumers apparently have changed, and they are looking for something different in fashion and clothing, which also happens to be less original and less expensive clothing.

Firstly, consumers buy more frequently from a variety of online retailers (‘e-tailers’), on top of them is Amazon.com, while getting easy access to broad selections of clothing from abroad at affordable prices. Consumers also are willing to pay less for garments, shoes and accessories of lower quality even if they would have to replace them more frequently. They further tend to inspect garments in physical stores and then buy the same or similar items from online stores. Yet another threatening competition to Castro comes from quick-movers, discount retailers like Zara and H&M that produce and sell garments of similar designs as those of known fashion houses (though they may have some original clothes). A more discomforting revelation of recent years is that a low cost retailer (Fox) is gaining in popularity while Castro is sliding down. The stores of Castro see less traffic of visitors (footfall), thus stores are too quiet for extended periods, and the sellers have too much ‘free time’ to arrange merchandise; a special report on public TV (Kan News, 4 May 2019, Hebrew) indicates that a growing pressure is put on sellers and other staff (e.g., visual merchandisers) to contribute to better results . Could it be that Israeli consumers find the design of stores less attractive; is the visual merchandising in-store less appealing to them; or is it the merchandise itself losing its appeal? We should not overlook the influence of background factors such as changes in the code of dressing (more casual, ‘dressing-down’, sportive) and economic constraints on consumers’ shopping behaviour in clothing and fashion.

  • In 2018 Castro saw overall a loss of 59 million shekels (~$16m), after a net gain of 48m shekels in 2017 and in 2016, and operating profit on clothing has dropped 66%. Additionally, sales of clothing in same stores of Castro+Hoodies fell 7.7% in 2018, above average rate in this sector (Globes, 5 May 2019, Hebrew — this article follows the report on Kan News).

A few ideas may be learned from the American department store chain Kohl’s that is taking dramatic measures in its effort for resurgence, led by CEO Michelle Gass [A]. Some of these measures may be relevant also to Castro, and could suggest directions for the transformation it may also be required of:

Kohl’s is reducing the amount of merchandise displayed in its stores, and is also decreasing the selling space of stores. On the other hand, the retailer installed an advanced inventory technology that allows it to track its merchandise on display at any time (by using RFID tags on product items), and follow purchase data (including online) and analyse it. Hence staff at Kohl’s can predict what products are in greater demand and what merchandise is in need of replenishing in real time, enabling to display less merchandise with no disadvantage.

Furthermore, Kohl’s  developed a capability to trace changes in market trends faster and cut the time needed to deliver new designs to stores (i.e., shorter time-to-market).

Kohl’s introduces new technologies in its stores to improve the service to shoppers and their in-store experience overall, including handheld checkout devices to cut waiting lines at cashiers, and digital price screens that can be updated with less hassle for staff; in addition, the RFID tags aforementioned enable staff to help customers quickly find products they seek (mirrors with holograms or augmented reality may come later).

  • Kohl’s has taken another intriguing step: orders from Amazon can be returned at desks in a hundred of its stores (out of 1,100+ stores). Critics and skeptics regarded this co-operation akin to “sleeping with the enemy” or “bringing a fox into the henhouse”. However, Gass sees in providing this service at Kohl’s stores an opportunity whereby Amazon’s customers already in a store may choose to buy some products they see around, similar to the case when Kohl’s customers who use its “click & collect” scheme at Kohls.com online store later come to pick-up the order at a physical store.

Castro announced recently that it plans to enlarge and redesign some of its stores. Castro Store TelAviv in GanHaIrPerhaps its management should re-consider enlarging stores. Does Castro really need to have stores as large as those of Zara and H&M (1000sqm+)? This may not be effective in terms of (lower) revenue per squared metre [B]. The stores can also be arranged to be more spacious between display exhibits and hold less merchandise, provided that information technology can be used to monitor it cleverly. Redesigning stores may indeed be welcome — current stores could feel too dark-toned with selective spot lights, which may be perceived more elegant but less convenient. Existing large stores may be reduced somewhat, or perhaps may better allocate space to other purposes like special projects (e.g., gallery of new art designs in fashion), a coffee bar or hosting events that may be more interesting than a space loaded with more products [cf. A].  Greater attention should be drawn to the experience that can be generated for visitors in-store.

Another issue concerns the image and experience delivered by the website and online store of Castro. Is the online store not advanced and rich enough? Will more exclusive online offers make the difference? [cf. B] What kind of experience should the website and online store present to visitors? Entering the e-commerce website overly feels like entering a catalogue. The e-store has some nice features like a model’s image changing position when hovering above with the mouse to show the garment from another angle, or being able to see the same garment in different colours. Yet the website appears nothing more than an e-commerce website; it misses something more important — it obscures Castro as a fashion house. The story of Castro and its creations is practically hidden, hard to find. When entering the website, it should communicate the image of the brand Castro — show original designs of the fashion house before start selling. The website should clearly show the “door” to the online store but right next to it should appear the “door” to Castro the fashion house and its story.

Eventually, the garments designed and created by Castro are the main issue to address. This should be an important point of differentiation for Castro from other retailers on which it should make its voice loud and clear. For example, prior to her role as CEO of Kohl’s, Gass identified the rise of the trend of activewear (sportive-energy) style in clothing; she gave it more emphasis in stores with the help of national brands like Nike and Adidas. Castro has a category (online) of Activewear. On the one hand, it can make its voice by introducing its own designs in this category. On the other hand, it should not go only after what seems popular at a time but suggest other modes or styles to the market.

Castro seems to lack sub-brands or endorsed brands up front that consumers can easily identify and associate certain styles or attributes with them (e.g., more daring or novel vs. more conservative, more artful vs. more functional). Castro is said to hire top-of-class young designers. Yet it does not elevate anyone as house designers by name, perhaps to encourage more collegiality and teamwork. An alternative approach would be to build a brand around a team of designers (like a “centre of excellence”) who share a certain vision and approach in fashion styles. Actually Castro already has three sub-brands: “Red” for casual dressing; “Blue” for more elegant, quasi-formal dressing; and “Black” for jeans wear. Castro can develop and enrich any of these sub-brands; create another brand with a specific style or tone of design as a secondary “specialisation” under any of those above; or build a new brand endorsed directly by the Castro name that will express new forms of art, novelty or elegance, etc. Whatever course taken, the leading idea is to give consumers a ‘name & face’ they can cling to, to follow how it evolves, and to identify with.

There are multiple avenues for Castro to reinvent and revive its brand and business as a whole. The expansion of its retailing activities may have led to the weakening of its fashion house and dilution of its brand. Some of the enterprises Castro acquired or merged with could hurt the brand to the extent that they are stopping Castro from developing answers in-house to gaps in the market. Therefore, it is perhaps the time now to return to increase the focus on Castro the fashion house as in earlier times, and let the retail arm serve it, not the other way round. Castro should be ready to enter its third period; the challenge will likely be assigned to the new Deputy CEO lately nominated, Ron Rotter (son of Etty and Gaby Rotter and former CFO), to reinvent Castro and put the brand on a new course.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Additional Sources:

[A] “Michelle Gass Is Cracking the Code at Kohl’s”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), December 2018, pp. 104-112.

[B] “Castro Once Was the Most Sexy Brand in Israel, But These Days Are Gone” (origin in Hebrew), TheMarker, 12 April 2019 (MarkerWeek edition), pp. 14-16

 

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