Stuff To Ponder: Is Too Much Money Being Left On The Table?

Though I have written about dynamic pricing, I have generally been a little resistant to the idea of implementing that sort of pricing because I feel having a clear and simple pricing is part of an arts organization’s relationship with a community. Or rather, having a complicated one can be a barrier to attendance and also generate a negative association with the organization.

But I have been reading some things recently that make me wonder about that.

JCPenny’s attempt to sell everything at an everyday low price that reflects the value of the product has apparently backfired on them.

According to a piece on MSNBC’s website:

Consumers complain about this constantly. That’s the basis of the Red Tape Chronicles in fact. At its best, the maddening mixture of coupons, rebates, sales and fine print fees can feel like a game. At worst, it’s being cheated. You’d think shoppers would love a chance to buy from a store that doesn’t play these games, the way car buyers (allegedly) like shopping at no-haggle auto dealerships.


To oversimplify for a moment, here’s Penney’s problem. They told the world that retailers only offer their best prices during crazy sales, and Penney stores would no longer host them. Sensible consumers apparently took that information to heart and decided to simply wait for such sales at other stores. As an added benefit, Penney lowered consumers’ search costs, because they now knew they didn’t need to bother driving to a Penney’s store anymore.


Shrouding isn’t the only reason Penney’s pricing plan is flawed. The firm is also leaving a lot of money on the table by rejecting a phenomenon known as “price discrimination.” Some people have more money than time, and some have more time than money. Some shoppers don’t mind spending hours to save $20; others would gladly give a store $20 to escape quickly. Smart retailers get money from both. By killing couponing, Penney has eliminated its ability to satisfy price discriminators.

And as others have pointed out, markdowns serve the age-old retailing trick of “anchoring.” For some reason, even very smart consumers feel better paying $60 for something if you initially tell them it costs $100, and then reduce the price.

Right around the same time this article came out, Colleen Dilenschneider on the Know Your Own Bone blog wrote about why offering discounts through services like Groupon is a bad idea for non-profits. The two reasons she gave?

“1) Your community expects more discounts, 2) Perhaps more importantly, your community waits for discounts”

Since MSNBC pretty much confirms what Colleen claims, I started to wonder if maybe arts organizations are fools not to double the prices and then offer 50% off coupons through social media.

Yeah, I know it is cynical and believe me, I still don’t want to get into doing anything resembling this. But I do everyone a disservice if I don’t explore the option.

Are arts organizations being responsible if they leave money on the table by not recognizing some people will pay more for the privilege of getting the transaction over quickly? If you effectively charge what you perceive to be the true value of your product by doubling the price in order to take advantage of consumer inability to pass up a 50% off coupon, are you really cheating your audience? (In other words, intend to sell tickets at $25 by pricing them at $50 and then flooding the market with half off coupons.)

One thing of course, I need to point out is that price does not develop loyalty. You can not develop a relationship with your community if interactions with your organization are based on price. I stated that in the early days of this blog and as Dilenschneider notes this is true even in these days of social media:

“It is far better for your brand and bottom line to have 100 fans who share and interact with your content to create a meaningful relationship, than to have 1,000 fans who never share your message and liked you just for the discount.”

Dilenschneider also points to some data that there are diminishing returns from social media discounts. This may illustrate be where arts organizations and retailers differ. Retailers can offer myriad discounts annually and not suffer, but arts and cultural organizations offer a product valued entirely differently from that of retailers

But lets assume that the current discounting model doesn’t work well for non-profits because it is really designed for the needs of retailers and that a discount offered in an alternative manner might prove more effective. Should we be researching alternative discount structures in order to more effectively generate revenue given that the future of donations and grants looks precarious?

Questions like this get into the core philosophy about the organization’s existence. Is the purpose to preserve and perpetuate the organization so it can continue to do good work? Or was the focus on providing the art in an affordable manner and the inability to do so is a sign that the organization should transition toward closure?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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