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The price is right (right?)

August 6, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer magazine.

A new survey of retailers from RSR Research shows that nearly half said their pricing strategy has become more promotions-driven over the past three years, while 55 percent reported an increase in the volume of price changes sent to stores and other channels.

"It's almost like a drug," says study author and managing partner Paula Rosenblum. Retailers need a sales boost, so they run a promo. Citing a race to the bottom that can only have one winner, Ms. Rosenblum writes, "Sooner or later, the industry must shift to fewer, more strategic price changes."

The vehicle driving that shift is price optimization technology, already utilized to some degree by many leading retailers. But within the next two to three years, "I think it'll be the industry standard, table stakes, if you will — and not just for the big boys but even for retailers with 25 stores or fewer," says Jeff Bulger, client success partner at Revionics, a provider of merchandising optimization solutions.

One key thing price optimization tools can do is help retailers identify the roles various categories play — which are traffic-builders, which are margin-drivers and which are destinations that help attract and retain customers.

The problem is many retailers identify too many of their categories as traffic drivers, often called "key value items" or KVIs. Pricing on KVIs can also be better tiered based on their price-sensitivity.

For non-KVIs, temporary price cuts (TPRs) are still the most popular form of promotion, though experts believe retailers can certainly be more creative as well as judicious in how they use them. Sharat Mathur, SVP at IRI Global Analytics & Consulting, said, "If you're offering 12-packs of soda at three for $10 or $12 for 48 weeks a year, shoppers will never play $4.99 because they know if they wait a week, it'll go on sale."

Price optimization tools can help retailers identify which items lift the total basket by encouraging customers to buy more than they would normally or, better yet, to buy the product from them rather than a competitor. They also promise to identify which trade funds they should accept and which they should negotiate back on.

Price zones represent another way retailers are tailoring prices to customers in a particular area. A handful of forward-thinking retailers are also using shopper loyalty data to create customized offers delivered via a coupon generated at check out, an e-mail, a text or, more recently, a mobile app.

Just how much do retailers stand to gain from an individualized, intent-based approach to pricing? Said Ken Ouimet, CEO of Engage3, "With (regular) price optimization — raising or lowering prices on the right products — we'd see 1 percent of sales would be driven to the bottom line. But with intent-based price optimization, we're seeing over 10 percent of sales being driven to the bottom line. So it's 10 times more powerful."

Discussion Questions:

What's holding back greater use of price optimization tools? What are the technology's obvious and less obvious benefits? Which touted solutions may wind up being a case of overpromising?

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Instant Poll:

What's the likelihood that price optimization tools will be fairly pervasive over the next two to three years?


Analysts do not have the time, skill or rewards to focus on what is really important; understanding their best consumers well enough to create innovative consumer experiences in collaboration with partners. It is easy to start a promotion. It is much more difficult to determine the long-term ROI of that promotion, or to determine which promotion has the best effect, or whether another type of promotion might lead to advocacy by loyal consumers. More promotions are the easy solution, but not necessarily the smart solution.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

It's never an exact science. In fact, it's a combination of art and science, and that is why price optimization is not foolproof and not easy to do, at least not on a consistent basis. As stated in the above piece, many retailers identify too many of their categories as traffic drivers. Does that skew the optimization? The science also seems to change from one solution to another.

There are so many factors and variables that need to be taken into consideration that it's no wonder many retailers don't know who to listen to and believe. I am not saying they should not be used. They are certainly better than using your gut! Right?

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Zel Bianco, President, founder and CEO, Interactive Edge

The question is a bit miscast since it assumes the assumptions to be correct.

There are multiple approaches to price. One certainly would optimize each transaction and may be effective in the very short run. In these cases, price optimization tools are very useful.

Another is based on the notion that creating effective price impression is more critical over the long haul than optimizing any individual price or set of prices. In this case price optimization tools can guide broad pricing policies but are probably going to be less cost effective.

As always, I remain in the camp of those who believe creating a strong price impression trumps extorting an extra nickel now and then. That said, I disagree with excessive promotion as an effective pricing tool.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

Specifically in the grocery business, many retailers of all sizes still use gut feel to drive many pricing decisions. The capabilities of price optimization and promotion optimization technologies leverage intense mathematical analyses that teams of people could never effectively replicate. Many organizations either aren't aware of that and/or they aren't aware of the potential benefits of that. Awareness is the critical issue preventing further adoption.

I have seen these tools optimize pricing strategies and tactics both online and off without over-promising the business outcomes. The tools can take age-old tactics, like price zones, and automate the process and reduce overall price-changing needs, and maximize effective revenue and profit realization. If you can't tell, I'm a big fan of these tools.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

Lack of awareness for how best to deploy and manage price optimization tools among most retailers, and possibly the fear that it's igniting a race to the bottom. Being able to know what their competitors' prices are and develop a strategy for how to compete against that is just starting to emerge with most retailers. Agree with the comment that within the next two-to-three years "I think it'll be the industry standard, table stakes."

Also agree with Paula that retailers need to more effectively manage their pricing function because the low price battle is likely to be won by other companies (and I would also include Dollar Tree/Family Dollar).

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

Two opposing forces hold back a more widespread adoption of price optimization systems. One force is the belief of some retailers that there's not much science behind price optimization, and that their intuition, combined with simple, non-scientific tools, is the best solution. The opposing belief, held by many other retailers, is that it would be great to have a price optimization system, but that the science required is impossibly difficult to get right.

The retailers who believes that there's not much science behind price optimization tend to combine their intuition with primitive spreadsheet-based pricing solutions, purchase from third-party vendors simplistic, non-scientific pricing solutions, or even believe that they can build a price optimization solution in-house. The complexity of what is required for a quality, scientific price optimization solution implies that none of these approaches will begin to achieve the return that an established, scientific system can provide.

The camp that believes that the science required is impossibly difficult to get right is closer to the truth! The science is "almost" impossibly difficult to get correct. The two components—forecasting demand and searching for optimal prices—are immensely difficult scientific and mathematical problems. The few quality scientific solutions that are available have taken literally decades of the best minds in the field to create. And not only does the science need to be fantastic, the complexity of the embodying software makes its implementation a daunting task. Additionally, for a successful implementation of even the most sophisticated price optimization software, the retailer has a responsibility as well. Inputs such as accurate prices, promotions and costs are essential. Many less-successful implementations of quality price optimization systems can be tied to a failure of the retailer to provide accurate inputs. It is very much worth the retailer's time and money to improve their processes in order to do so.

Bottom line: There are high-quality, scientifically-based price optimization systems available today. As the article suggests, if a retailer is to succeed in the future, it had better adopt a quality price optimization system today. But realizing that the science is both critical and "almost" impossible to get right is essential. It will take the retailer a lot of work (and perhaps a good deal of outside, technically-expert advice) to properly evaluate the available price optimization systems, but this effort will pay off many times over in the results that will be obtained.

Dr. Paul Helman, Chief Science Officer, KSS Retail

Important research from RSR. I've previously seen research concluding that 75 percent-plus of all U.S. grocery volume already flows through retailers using some form of rules-based price optimization software (e.g., Revionics, IBM DemandTec, Dunnhumby KSS Retail, etc.) I suspect the percentages are rising in discretionary categories as well, perhaps with an emphasis on markdown optimization.

This is unsurprising given increasing price transparency and competitiveness. Walmart's unit economics have convinced it of its advantage for basket-level price competitiveness, hence the imminent rollout of SavingsCatcher. Amazon's unique business model and dynamic pricing capability often (but definitely not always) gives it an edge at the item level.

All retailers must get more sophisticated about their pricing strategy, both in-store and online. This starts with better information about competitors' pricing, better analytics on elasticities and cross-elasticities (product and category), and more rigorous and better-executed approaches to executing optimized prices. Many will, and should, compete primarily on non-price factors like selection, service and convenience. But leaving pricing to intuition (or worse, chance) is a losing strategy.

The article thoughtfully raises some of the key pitfalls of this more transparent era—namely a race to the bottom. When used strategically, price intelligence and optimization solutions can actually help retailers maximize unit volume and margin, and make better decisions about pricing and promotion more efficiently.

Getting this level of intelligence for brick-and-mortar stores at a local level on a useful cadence has historically been prohibitively costly. The growing number of receipt-scanning start-ups (e.g., Boston locals CartCrunch attempting to build sizable panels are one interesting evolution that may bring us closer. But a growing number of retailers are starting by monitoring competitors' online prices as an initial input into their price optimization strategies, both online and in-store.

From the brands' perspective, Sharat's comments on trade promotion are key. As an industry, CPG companies are investing more in temporary price reductions but seeing diminishing lift/ROI. See recent comments from Kraft's CEO, for example.

The shift to "personalized" pricing is certainly underway, but it's moving relatively slowly due to a combination of technical limitations (targeting capabilities, fraud prevention) and concerns about regulatory intervention. Retailers and brands alike would be delighted to price equivalent to each individual shopper's willingness to pay, and to optimize price investments based on shopper or household lifetime value (LTV). We're at least a few years off before that capability is mainstream.

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Keith Anderson, VP, Strategy & Insight, Profitero


As Ralph Jacobson points out, these analytical engines are very powerful and can process large volumes of data very quickly and generate useful information for the price optimization solutions. These tools are very helpful for assisting the merchandisers with figuring out the appropriate price points and times for regular, promotion and markdown pricing.

Looked at alone as a mechanism for driving volume of sales for a given product or time frame, these solutions work well. However, by adding customer information in the form of shopping history, preferences and understanding of how the customer wants to be communicated with etc., the retailer can increase their effectiveness of the promotion, as highlighted at the end of the article by Ken Ouimet.

Alan Lipson, Retail Industry Marketing Manager, SAS Institute Inc.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more. Surely retailers know by now they can no longer fly by the seat of their pants, determine and execute price changes manually, price dynamically, set rules-based pricing, and remain competitive WITHOUT these tools and technology.

Looking at the section on Pricing Technology Solutions in a recent RSR study, 50% of the respondents indicated that they were in the process of evaluating and selecting a rules-based pricing engine as one of the "tools and techniques to manage the pricing process." (Note: This 50% figure is from the group identified by RSR as "laggards"—slow adopters, less successful business numbers, etc.) Only 8% of "winners" indicated that they are evaluating/selecting a rules-based pricing engine, presumably because they've already got one—or have already done their homework.

One of the reasons RSR principles Nikki Baird and Paula Rosenblum called their research report "Tough Love" was because retailers seem to be reacting to perceived issues, such as the consumer being extremely price conscious, which isn't totally borne out at this point. And, while retailers cite needing a rules-based pricing engine and other pricing solutions, they also spend a lot of time worrying about inventory, promotions-related issues, and solutions (which they should). Retailers seem to know they "need" and "want" tools and technology, but have to get their priorities straight on why they need them, how to use them, and what kind of results to expect.

It is nearly incredible that in today's market, when the going gets tough, the retailers do... promotions???!

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Naomi K. Shapiro, Strategic Market Communications, Upstream Commerce

Tools for setting base price in grocery using optimization have moved well along their life cycle since they were introduced in about 2000. The basic science is fairly well-known by now and there are many choices available.

In an increasingly promotional environment, adjustments to base prices (even those calculated using a sophisticated model) may not deliver the desired benefits on their own.

That's why the most comprehensive solutions apply the optimization model to the related issues raised by space and assortment planning, promotions, and markdowns. Big retailers can justify these fairly easily, but the cost and required attention may seem too great for smaller ones. Cloud-based (SaaS) solutions may help mitigate those objections in part by keeping the costs more proportional to the size of the business.

I'm quite a supporter of the notion raised in the final quote from Ken Ouimet, that individualized promotional prices may be set based on an understanding of shopper intent. Sometimes called participatory pricing, these cues may be gained from shopper interaction with an app and other sources and folded into a model that has its roots in the original price optimization science.

There could be a serious first-mover advantage for retailers that explore participatory pricing in the coming year. The payoff will come in share of trips, basket size and not-too-deep promotional prices.

[Full disclosure: I assist Ouimet's company Engage3 on some B2B content marketing.]

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

There are fewer and fewer reasons to stock up on anything these days. The retail industry knows this better than all others combined. So the order of marketing engagement is to address those with a need to buy something now. What is missing is clearly demonstrated in the shotgun advertising used to get the attention of those with a need and the means to pay for it now. Stacking anything high to watch it fly out the door is no longer working by itself.

The seller focus is pricing to attract as many customers as possible every day. Staging events around the pricing of everything in the store that might sell is further convoluted by lumping any and all B+ to A+ turn items into a new category. This may not be getting the results needed as per a continuing decline in store receipt volumes and sizes for the entire market(s).

The search for an advertising method with content that really is unique to the messenger is elusive unless it is a constant reminder of industry leadership in overall quality, service and support followed by availability and then of course, pricing. In an anemic economy, there is no room or resources for replacement costs.

So while most shoppers are seen as in search of price, availability, quality and then support the priorities always noticeably and radically change immediately after the transaction. The priorities for most owners are quality, service, support and then with far less concern price and availability. The present-day experienced, 21st century shopper is more aware of the cost of a mistake than in the recent past. This is pushing price into an equal or even lesser consideration than there is for support and quality.

A constant call for shoppers needing to ensure their investment as the best the market offers is worth looking into as seen demonstrated by the automotive and prepared food industry. Differentiation should demonstrate the retailers ability to provide the best bang for the buck in any and all product offerings. There are no economic depression proof goods or services as we all should know by now.

The consumer not able to purchase the very best wants to own the very best they can afford. Customer service and support are the best means to ensure the customer's investment for the task or purpose at hand elevating the ownership experience to the maximum attainable levels. Differentiation takes time and costs money but it works well to take advantage of a healthy money supply as well as an advantage for consumers in the bad times.


While price optimization tools have the potential to improve profitability for a retailer as a whole, theses companies are still structured around merchants who buy for specific categories and are compensated on delivered margin for that category most frequently.

Technology can provide the answer, but it will never be implemented when there are such competing interests.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

Maybe retailers are confused between the choice of using price optimization to set long-term prices against the need to run optimized promotions. The technology obviously can and should help price products for long-term success. On the other hand, a myopic focus on price cuts will be a "race to the bottom." Retailers should look for non-price promotions and creative uses of price promotions. For example, in one study, we found that a small coupon can nearly double shoppers' unplanned purchasing if the coupon is individually optimized to increase in-store travel distance. In other words, the role of the price promotion was to build the basket rather than to increase the sales of a single item.

Jacob Suher, PhD Student, UT-Austin

I've worked with dozens of retailers on price optimization and what I've found is that Price Optimization is a powerful solution. But like a powerful car, if you drive it in the wrong direction all that happens is you get to the wrong destination faster. To be successful you need all solution components to be working: clean and complete data, sophisticated econometric models, an advanced optimization engine, comprehensive objectives and rules and easy-to-use software. Perhaps the most important ingredient is a talented team of individuals who know how to drive the optimization to the correct destination. When you put the whole package together it determines the right strategy, translates that strategy into the right price for every item in every store, achieves the retailer's strategic, financial and operational objectives, and ensures that prices are consistently managed and maintained to meet customer needs.

Going forward, the incorporation of the customer dimension into these solutions will be vital. This enables retailer's to target more of their prices to the needs of their most valuable customers and also provides integration with personalized pricing through electronic offers delivered via smart phone apps. Retailers need to make smart investments to lower prices where loyal customers value them most, run promotions where they are most appropriate and price for quality where that makes most sense.

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Graeme McVie, VP & GM, Business Development, Precima

The airlines have "mastered" price optimization. They go through long periods of time where they lose money, and for the most part their customers hate them.

The success of some no-haggle car dealers, and EDLP retailers might indicate that customers like fair, good value pricing.

Everyone loves a great deal, but it doesn't result in loyalty. Everyone hates paying too much, and the resulting "reverse-loyalty" is very strong.


Senior leadership in many retailers are faced with several quarters of constantly eroding revenues. They are trying several things and there is a lack of clarity of what is working and what is not.

This increasingly complex retail environment and a lack of a game plan is the first problem. I truly believe one needs to have a game plan or a strategy and the tools will follow.

That being said, many retailers have become so reactive that they are not giving much thought to their pricing strategy, or have stuck to their old ways since they are not sure if the new ways will work.

However, not doing anything is clearly not an option.

Technology can help when it is informed by a game plan and the right talent to execute it. It is going to take a combination of technology and deep knowledge about retail (customers, categories, etc) to succeed, and I don't think it will be solved by technology alone. Increasingly there is going to be no option but to heavily rely on technology for certain aspects of data crunching and programmatic price recommendations and changes.

Participating commerce or intent based pricing is a great idea and maybe in it's early days.

I think there are some basic things that need solving first and technology can definitely support them.

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Mihir Kittur, Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Ugam

Price optimization tools should ideally eliminate these promotion-driven races to the bottom, but in the wrong hands these tools can destroy margins. Most optimization software allows for retailers to price products based on competitors prices (e.g. always be 5% less than Competitor X), and if retailers focus on these rules, they can see the downward spiral continue until margins are gone.

The science is evident; there is no doubt that the econometric analysis contributing to price optimization is incredibly valuable. The problem is, pricing is just as much art as science. Strategically planning your price points, and providing clear reasoning for why your product commands that value is where pricing becomes an art form. Or at the very least, a plan requiring more than quantitative analysis.

Retailers should realize that price optimization tools are not an automatic profit booster. The fact that people see the software as 'table stakes' in a few years means that retailers should not be seeking the tools as a differentiator. Instead, companies can emphasize service, quality, and/or support and then tag a price they believe to be reasonable in comparison. Price optimization software plays its part by automatically adjusting the prices to fit the company's broader predetermined strategy when the landscape changes.

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Arie Shpanya, Founder & Executive Chairman, Wiser

The term "price optimization" can be seen to include any number of capabilities, such as price recommendation based on historical point of sale analysis, price elasticity analysis, zone pricing, markdown optimization, dynamic repricing, rules-based pricing and recommendations based on competitive price intelligence, to name a few. As to why retailers are not adopting these solutions more rapidly, it stands to reason that they are having challenges in deciphering the messages and offerings of the various providers, and striving to determine which solution will best address their unique needs. The most successful offerings are those that stake out a clear proposition that make it easy for retailers to see what kind of value they will generate for them. And, given the adoption hesitation on the part of retailers, it is fair to say that the majority of vendors must not be displaying that kind of value.

With the right solution, or combination of solutions as the case may be, the benefits for retailers will be increased sales and margins through right pricing of individual and groups of products, by zone or even by individual. One less obvious benefit will be increased trust in the retailer's brand as they get their pricing right, and consumers sense that the retailer has their house in order. The feeling of cognitive dissonance when a shopper feels a retailer's price is completely out of line with their expectation will cause them to question all of their interactions with that retailer.

As for which tools may wind up being a case of over-promising, I think it depends on the nature of the retailer's business. For example, constant repricing to win the buy box on Amazon may make sense for startup retailers with very low cost structures and nothing to lose, but will ultimately be damaging to the brand for larger, more established retailers who rely on engendering a sense of trust with their customers. Furthermore, in this era of increasing price transparency, price optimization and price-setting solutions must take into account high quality competitive and market price intelligence in order to have any measure of effectiveness.

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Alexander Rink, CEO, 360pi

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