Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Kindle as a Razor

Amazon is proving to be a stubborn competitor. Many people thought Amazon would be severely damaged by the market entrance of the Apple iPad. After all, the iPad does many more things than simply provide an eBook reading experience. But, the Kindle is not going away easily. The company claims that it appeals to “serious readers,” which it estimates at about 10% of the population, and Amazon is chasing that 10% avidly.

Amazon is using the Kindle as a Loss Leader. Recently, a company estimated that the cost of the Kindle, that is all its parts and labor, was about $185. Amazon claims that the cost is much higher. This cost was not a great deal of the problem when the Kindle2 sold for $400, about its introductory price. Nor was it a problem when the Kindle sold for $289, the cost of the second version. Now, the new and improved Kindle3 has a price as low as $139, well below the estimated $185 cost. Amazon is taking a significant haircut on the cost of the Kindle in order to populate future customers for its eBooks. The company makes an attractive profit on its eBook sales and uses the Kindle as the razor to its eBook razorblades.

Amazon has also hedged its bet. Kindle eBooks also are readable on the iPad, so we are about to see an interesting contest between a very inexpensive Kindle and the iPad for the eyes of future eBook readers.

This razor and razorblade strategy is common (see Prices). Here are some of the other places it has taken place:

* Caterpillar often reduced prices on new equipment in order to assure itself of the replacement parts business.

* The Palm Trio 600 had a list price of $600, but a consumer could buy it for as little as $330 with a phone service contract.

* Nintendo subsidized the sale of its game consoles in order to boost the sales of its game software.

* Restaurants offer free, or inexpensive, appetizers at the bar in order to increase alcohol sales.

* Charles Schwab offered a $400 analysis of a client’s holdings, including two hours worth of in-person advice, in order to increase the odds that it would be able to manage the client’s money for a yearly fee.

These Loss Leader pricing innovations are worthwhile whenever the revenues from the attendant products, which follow the Loss Leader product, are worth considerably more than is the Loss Leader.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Apple's Future in Smart Phones - Part II

Apple is the clear leader in today’s consumer smart phone market. Research in Motion leads the commercial market. I am going to make the case that a few years from now, they will have a single digit market share. They will turn into a Performance Leader, a small high-priced competitor in the market. (See “Video #24: Price Point Specialists in Hostility” on This position will be similar to the one Apple holds today in the personal computer market. In Part I of this blog, we described the evolution of Apple in the personal computer market. Apple today produces a marvelous personal computer. It appears that Apple is following the same map in the smart phone market as it followed in personal computers.

Apple owns both the hardware and the software in its smart phones. And it keeps both exclusive to Apple. It had early mover advantage so it garnered virtually all of the apps that people cared to develop for its smart phone platform. But a new competitor has emerged in the Android operating system. Android fills the same role as Microsoft did in the personal computer industry. Microsoft was cheap and available for many hardware platforms. The PC attracted the most app developers. Android is cheap and attractive to app developers. On the other hand, Apple has made life difficult for app developers by forcing them to jump through hoops in order to gain approval to offer apps on the Apple iPhone platform. Today, Apple has something north of 200,000 apps. Android has 70,000 apps. But, as one analyst noted, every app that a number of people are likely to want to use today is already available for both the Android and the iTouch. Apple may have more apps, but most of the apps exclusive to Apple appeal to narrow niches.

Now let’s play forward the next few years. (See “Audio Tip #32: Introduction to Step 7 of the Basic Strategy Guide” on Motorola, HTC, LG and Samsung are among the many companies producing Android-based phones. The Android market is growing quickly. It will grow even more quickly as the prices of the Android handsets fall under the pressure of competition in the smart phone hardware market among some big, capable companies. Within a year, the app developers will write new apps, first for the Android platform and second for the Apple iPhone or other smart phone platform. Several years from now, the intense competition in the hardware market will reduce the cost of an Android smart phone low enough to remove a good deal of the profit that Apple now enjoys with the iPhone. (See “Audio Tip #102: When is Price Likely to Go Down?” on As the Android smart phone producers continually add the features and capability to make their phones unique for consumers, the Android phones will be nearly as capable as, if not the equal of, the Apple iPhone. And, the Android phones will be much cheaper. Apple will be pushed into a Performance Leader position, where it offers high-priced feature-rich phones and garners a share of the market likely to be in single digits. This will not happen overnight. The smart phone market is still in its infancy. But check back in three to four years.

It will be interesting to see whether this competitive pattern holds in the tablet computer market as well.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Apple's Future in Smart Phones - Part I

Apple is the clear leader in today’s consumer smart phone market. Research in Motion leads the commercial market. I am going to make the case that a few years from now, they will have a single digit market share. They will turn into a Performance Leader, a small high-priced competitor in the market. This position will be similar to the one Apple holds today in the personal computer market. It appears that Apple is following the same pathway it followed in the personal computer market. Perhaps a bit of history is helpful here.

The business model of Apple differed from that of the PC. Apple was not the first personal computer, but it was, by far, the best. And, it got paid for being the best. Apple really created the mass market for personal computers. It had a huge percentage of the marketplace by the time 1981 rolled around and IBM introduced the PC. Apple controlled both the hardware and the software for its personal computer products. On the PC side, Microsoft’s Windows controlled the software, while a large number of companies became hardware producers for the Windows operating system. In the early years of the personal computer, the hardware was far more expensive than the software.

The PC market had a great deal more competition…and cost/price reductions. Apple prevented any other hardware producer from copying its products. There was at least one company who tried, Franklin Computer. But Apple killed them off in the mid-1980s. From that point on, there were no clone producers of Apple machines. The picture was very different on the IBM/Microsoft side. IBM found itself facing many competitors. Most of those competitors we called “clones.” Dell was one of those clones. This large number of hardware competitors reduced the cost of hardware drastically during the late 80s and through the 90s. (See “Audio Tip #196: Why Economies of Scales Exist” on The source of much of the cost of the hardware for a personal computer shifted to the Intel or AMD chips embedded in the hardware. Still, AMD constantly challenged Intel, so Intel had to reduce its prices in order to maintain its very high market shares in chips. All of this intense competition reduced the cost of hardware until today the software costs as much as the hardware. Competition forced hardware components and prices down to such an extent that the PC platform had significant price advantages over the Macintosh/Apple platform. Apple was pushed into a high-cost/high-priced hardware position.

The competition in software was much less pronounced. It has only been in the last few years that Microsoft has had to respond to lower cost competition from Linux and Google. These lower cost competitors have had an impact on Microsoft’s prices, but nothing like the impact that the hardware competition had in reducing the price of hardware. The mass market followed the lower priced PC market. Apple today produces a marvelous machine. It has rabid and loyal fans. It also has high prices and a single digit share of the personal computer market. Were it not for the genius of Steve Jobs and his cohorts at Apple inventing new products with higher margins, Apple would be struggling today, much as it was before Steve Jobs returned to the company. It wouldn’t make a lot of money in the personal computer industry because the industry Standard Leaders, the PC producers, are so cost effective, and so much lower in price, than is Apple.

In Part II, we will see how this same pattern is playing out in the smart phone market.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Discounts - Much Greater Than Most Assume

Recently, we did an extensive analysis of various forms of price reductions and discounts. In particular, we were interested in seeing how big discounts tended to be. Across roughly 850 instances of discounts, we found that the median discount was 25%. 75% of all discounts were 10% or greater.

Discounts in distressed markets are often much higher. Numerous examples reside in Florida condominiums. This market grew far too fast for demand and then collapsed quickly. Retail prices for condominiums there have fallen from 30% to 40% off their peak prices. If you are a big buyer, one capable of doing a bulk purchase, discounts are even larger. In one example, a condominium project had a cost of $340 per square foot to build. The complex had 375 luxury units which sat in bankruptcy. A developer bought 165 units at an auction sale at a price of $126 a square foot. That works out to a 63% discount on the cost of new building. (See Price)

For comparison purposes, the median customer who is able to purchase a large package of a product buys that product at a discount of about 30% off of the retail price. 75% of these types of purchases have discount equal to or greater than 20%.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Service Levels Go Up, Not Down, in Hostility

A market in overcapacity is hostile. Surprisingly, in a hostile market service levels to customers go up, not down. (See “Video #36: Probable Priorities for Innovation in Hostile Markets” on The airline industry is an example. The airline industry has been hostile virtually from the day it was deregulated in 1978 until today. During that time, the industry has made great strides in reducing its costs and increasing its service levels at the same time.

Here are some interesting statistics that bear out this contention. These statistics compare the airline industry in 1969 to that of 2009. In 1969, 172 million passengers flew U.S. Airlines. By 2009, that number had grown to 770 million. In 1969, there were 5.4 million flights. By 2009, the flight numbers had risen to 10.1 million. Service levels, as measured by number of flights and number of passengers, clearly have risen over the last forty years. During that time, safety clearly improved. Fatal accidents per 100,000 departures were 1.3 in 1969 and .1 by 2009. Pricing dropped as well, because costs dropped. In 2009, it cost a passenger 14 cents to fly one mile. The comparable number in 1969, using 2009 dollars, was 34 cents. Today you can get to more places faster by airliner than you could in 1969. Service levels have risen.

Naturally, those of us who fly would complain that service levels in terms of comfort have fallen drastically. Meals used to be free and there used to be ample space for knees and luggage. Those days seem to have passed...or have they?

The airlines have learned time and again that customers will not pay for onboard meals and more leg room. However, those customers who are willing to pay for more comfort can fly in economy plus or business class or first class. The prices for these services today are much lower than they were several years ago. So no matter how you slice it, service levels have risen in the industry when you look at the service levels for which customers are willing to pay.

The same holds true in every hostile industry. (See “Video #37: Performance Innovation Tradeoffs in Hostility” on

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pricing in the Dog Days of August

It seems that not many people wanted to spend the weekend in Philadelphia during August. Hotels that might be full during the week were sparsely populated on the weekends. But, Marriott was not taking this situation lying down.

The Philadelphia Marriott came up with an innovative pricing strategy. Any guest who booked a two-night stay starting any Friday during August into mid-September had to pay only the price of the highest outside temperature for the Saturday night rate. So, the guest paid regular prices on Friday night and the heavily discounted rate, based on the day’s high temperature, for Saturday night. A clever approach to discounting.

This is one of several approaches companies have used to get through periodic, or seasonal slow demand times. Companies have used the components of a price in order to bring customers to its products during slow times. For example:

* A construction company changed its list price much as did the Philadelphia Marriott. It priced its services very aggressively for the months of January and February so its customers would move work forward that would normally be done in the spring or summer.

* Other companies change the definition of their product to reach a new, lower, price point. Companies who sell fractional ownerships of private jets offer discounts up to 25% for flying on off-peak days.

* Other companies make direct payments to customers. We can see this approach with the current Orbitz program called Price Assurance. Orbitz refunds customers the differences in fare if a customer purchases an airline ticket and then sees the price of the ticket fall before he leaves on his trip.

* Some sellers throw in a free, or heavily discounted, product from a third party. For example, as the housing market became more difficult, some sellers offered to outfit a media room or pay closing costs for their buyers.

We believe that a company facing a tough pricing environment can gain a lot by studying what other companies have done when facing the same circumstances. We have many of these examples on our web site. (See Improve/Pricing on

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid...Oh, Never Mind

The 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index E-Business Report is out. The report is the product of the research firm ForeSee Results. The research firm uses data provided by the University of Michigan. Analysts argue that the report should sound an alarm for Google and Facebook, two of the web’s most popular sites. Apparently, the companies are not doing as good a job as they have in the past with privacy policies and ease of use of their web sites. The report’s scores are set so that a score under 70 is considered poor. Facebook gets a rating of 64, despite the fact that it is the largest and fastest growing social networking service in the U.S. Google gets a rating of 80. This rating is down from 86 a year ago. What are we to make of this?
Not much.

If you went out today and purchased an automobile that had the styling, operating capabilities and characteristics of an automobile from 1960, you would be severely disappointed. You would compare that car to today’s car and find the older car sorely lacking. How, then, did anyone sell a car in 1960? They sold cars in 1960 because they didn’t have the automobiles of 2010 to compete with those cars. The relevant comparison is not an absolute measure. It is only a relative measure. We have to view Facebook and Google against their competition, not against an absolute standard. (See “Video #70: Overview of Products and Services Part 2: What to Expect” on

When you look at these two companies against their closest competitors, they come out rather well. Facebook’s “dismal” 64 rating compares with its nearest rival, MySpace, with its rating of 63. Google’s “falling” rating of 80 compares with Microsoft’s Bing at 77 and Yahoo at 76. The sky is not falling. (See the Perspective, “How Customers Buy” on

In any competitive market, the standard is not absolute performance, but relative performance. If a company’s relative performance begins to fall, it will lose market share and you can expect falling quality rankings to account for much of the market share loss. An absolute standard is meaningless. Perfection of performance has a cost well beyond what the vast majority of customers would be willing to pay.