Getting pricing right in an economic downturn

In the current environment, costs are rising as price sensitivity increases. Six tactics can help companies get pricing right.
Getting pricing right is always a challenge in an economic downturn, as decreasing demand, excess capacity, and greater price sensitivity all conspire to drive down prices. In most downturns, the cost of raw materials, feed stocks, and other upstream supplies as well as the cost to serve customers (for delivering goods, for example) tends to stabilise and even decrease as business activity slows.
As a result, decreases in downstream prices are at least partially offset by lower upstream costs. But in the current environment, not only is weaker demand from the end user making it harder to maintain prices, but significantly higher and more volatile input costs mean that companies caught in the middle are getting hit from both sides.
In this unusual downturn, companies need to manage the profitability of individual customers and transactions with greater precision, develop richer insights into their customers’ changing needs and price sensitivities, and understand more clearly the microeconomics that shape their own industries and those of their suppliers.
Here are some suggestions aimed at maintaining the best balance possible between sales volume and profit margins in the current environment.
Companies should be vigilant in monitoring pricing policies that reduce revenue such as volume discounts, rebates, and cash discounts as well as cost-to-serve, including freight and sales support. In the current downturn, rising costs and declining demand can cause these elements to change more dramatically and quickly than they have in the past.
Rapidly increasing fuel prices, for example, are putting intense pressure on delivery costs. Declining demand means that some customers may be collecting volume discounts they no longer deserve.
Best-practice companies are reviewing much more frequently their pocket margin waterfalls, which show how much revenue companies really keep from each of their transactions, and adjusting their pricing policies accordingly — for example, by adding delivery fuel surcharges to every order. Without the extra attention and quick action, erosion at all points of a transaction can quickly destroy profits in times like these.
Companies should use transaction-level data to measure precisely the profitability of each customer. By doing so, companies can detect if the cost to serve particular customers or declining order volumes are nudging those customers below target profitability levels.
In this downturn, for example, many customer groups are becoming simultaneously smaller and more costly to serve. One industrial company found that more than 20 per cent of its customers had fallen below breakeven profitability, forcing it to raise prices selectively and, where possible, lower cost-to-serve by decreasing delivery frequency, reducing sales support, or fulfilling orders through alternate channels.
Downturns always prompt changes in customer needs and in the benefits they value when choosing a supplier. The dynamics of the current downturn mean that such swings can occur even more rapidly. In this environment, the best companies are constantly assessing through market research and direct contact how economics are changing for their customers.
Even more important, they are reacting quickly by retooling their price and benefit offerings accordingly. For example, one plastic resins supplier that had developed a fast-curing resin (to enhance capacity of injection molders when the economy was strong) has now developed a less costly resin that does not cure as quickly.
The new resin helps the supplier’s customers decrease costs, because molders are not running at full capacity during the downturn. With other supplies raising their prices, many molders see the slow-curing resin as an attractive alternative. As a result, the supplier can maintain its profit margins even while selling the alternative resin at a lower price. The combination of lower demand and higher input costs in the current downturn makes it critical to get these kinds of adjustments to the cost/benefit balance correct.
Dramatic increases in energy and food prices have made consumers much more sensitive to prices across a wide range of product categories. Each price increase for necessities such as food and fuel has cut a little more from discretionary budgets, sharply increasing price sensitivity.
Market price tests become obsolete after just a few months. Pricing sensitivity research and market price tests should be rerun immediately to track these changes.
The extreme volatility in this downturn demands that companies reexamine not only the microeconomics of their own industries but also the microeconomics of their suppliers’ industries. Recently, a specialty chemicals company invested in modeling the current industry supply, demand, and cost dynamics for one of its primary raw materials.
By doing so, the company predicted an industry-wide, 15 per cent price increase for that raw material three months before it happened — a feat of some significance because there hadn’t been an annual price increase of more than 5 per cent for that material within the past six years.
Suspecting an imminent and unusually large price increase, the chemicals company began adding clauses covering raw material price increases to its customer contracts, a move that would have met extreme resistance if made after the price increases were announced. Instead, the move established an industry precedent for passing cost increases through to customers.