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Benefits of Intense Competition: Lower Prices and Better Products

No segment of our economy has been under more intense pressure than the manufacturing sector. Lower labor costs in many parts of the international economy have forced manufactured product prices down and shifted manufacturing jobs out of the United States. Competition has indeed been intense.

Does the Withdrawal of Capacity Help?

As industry prices fall, and companies’ fortunes decline with the resultant squeeze on their margins, some companies, especially the leaders, seek to withdraw capacity from the market. The leading companies expect the capacity withdrawal to do two things: redress the imbalance between capacity and demand; and raise prices to more attractive levels because of this better balance. In practice, the withdrawal of capacity often fails to achieve either of these objectives.

Failures in Reliability Lead to Share Loss

We have written several times before about the Customer Buying Hierarchy (i.e. customers buy Function, Reliability, Convenience and Price, in that order). We have also written, on several occasions, about companies winning and failing customers in a marketplace. In a stable market, failure of a supplier causes more market share to move than does another competitor’s “win” of market share against its peers. Most failures occur in Reliability. Recently, two of America’s paragon companies have failed their customers on Reliability and are now struggling to catch up. Other leaders have had a similar problem and have recovered nicely.

The Mobile Phone Industry and Customer Retention

The mobile phone industry’s growth has slowed. It is now operating more like a stable, moderate to slow growth market. This is particularly true in Europe. To face the challenge of slower growth in the industry, European mobile operators are turning to customer retention, but they are careful of the customers they seek to retain.

A Likely End Game to Hostility

The hard disk drive business has been a lousy place to compete for nearly twenty-five years. It has been the graveyard of many competitors. Twenty years ago, there were eighty disk drive manufacturers. By the mid-90s, there were only fifteen. By 2001, there were eight, and today it appears there are only four. But the fact that we are at four competitors, especially the size of the leading competitors, means that the industry is likely to come out of its recurring bouts of overcapacity and hostility.

Nestlé’s Cost Reduction in the Coffee Business

Nestle is the world-wide leader in the coffee business. They offer coffees at virtually all price points. They invented instant coffee in the 1930s. After the buffets of the commodity markets over the last few years, the company has created a global push to reduce its costs and to increase the quantity and quality of the coffee it buys.

Cable T.V. and Customer Retention

Recently, I decided to test the waters for a less expensive television experience. I have been a loyal cable subscriber for thirty-five years, but friends have told me that other systems, especially satellite, are cheaper. I went online to DirectTV.com to check their packages. We have been spending about $112 a month. The equivalent package from DirectTV appeared to be about $81 a month. I was shocked at the size of the price difference. DirectTV was more than 25% less expensive than Comcast, my cable supplier.

The Kindle with Special Offers…not your typical low-end product

Amazon has introduced a low-end Kindle product, the Kindle with special offers. This Kindle sells for $114 compared to the standard $139 Kindle with Wi-Fi. This is not a typical low-end product. Low-end products offer fewer benefits than industry-leading products (we call these Standard Leader products) for either the buyer or the user of the product in return for a lower price. We call these low-end products Price Leaders. There are two kinds of Price Leaders. The first, called Strippers, strip out benefits for both the user and the buyer of the product in order to achieve a very low price. The second, Predators, offers the user equivalent benefits to the industry’s main product but fewer benefits for the buyer. On average, Price Leaders cost about 33% less than Standard Leader products.

Cable T.V. and Customer Retention

Recently, I decided to test the waters for a less expensive television experience. I have been a loyal cable subscriber for thirty-five years, but friends have told me that other systems, especially satellite, are cheaper. I went online to DirectTV.com to check their packages. We have been spending about $112 a month. The equivalent package from DirectTV appeared to be about $81 a month. I was shocked at the size of the price difference. DirectTV was more than 25% less expensive than Comcast, my cable supplier.

A Squeeze at the Top

The very highest end of Parisian hotels includes such names as the Crillon, the Plaza Athenee and Le Bristol. There are four of these highest prestige hotels in Paris. Their prices start at Euro 750 a night. Average room prices run around Euro 1000 a night. These are among the highest prices for hotel rooms in the world. Still, occupancy rates run around 80%. Even in the doldrums of 2008 and 2009, they fell only to 70%.

Another Creative Pricing Scheme

It is not often that you see companies using really unusual pricing to build future business. Here is one that I like.

The NYSE Stumble Offers a Lesson for All Leaders

Recently, the New York Stock Exchange agreed to sell itself to the German exchange, Deutsche Boerse. For generations, the NYSE was the place to trade equities of the finest companies in the U.S. Its sale to a German exchange is a sign of how desperate its market situation has become. The NYSE’s fall offers some important lessons for a market leader in any industry.

Amazon's Blockbuster Innovation

In 2005, Amazon introduced its Prime Free Shipping program. This yearly subscription program promised free two-day shipping on any purchase the subscriber made from Amazon. Five years later, 13% of Amazon’s 130 million active users are Prime members. More significantly, 20% of the subscribers who purchased products from Amazon in the last twelve months are Prime subscribers. These Prime subscribers purchase two to three times as much as non-Prime subscribers over the course of a year. This Performance innovation removes an impediment to purchasing on Amazon. In fact, it increases the odds greatly that online purchases will be made on Amazon rather than on a competitive site. This has been a blockbuster innovation for Amazon. The innovation holds a special appeal to the larger customers in the market.

Whirlpool and Electrolux Blink

The home appliance market has been a difficult place to compete during several periods over the last thirty years. It is tough again today. Sales of large appliances have fallen steadily since 2007. Competition is intensifying with the pressure of the South Korean competitors, LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics, on Whirlpool Corp and Electrolux AB. Whirlpool and Electrolux are suffering from rising costs for steel, copper, plastics and other raw materials. To offset these cost increases, the two companies plan price increases of 8% to 10% in the spring.

News Corp Responds to the Market for "Free"

The newspaper industry has faced a mighty challenge over the last few years. There is so much “free” content to complete with them. Newspaper revenue continues to plummet. Internet users are reluctant to pay for content. All the free content, supported by advertising revenue, has decimated the newspaper industry. The industry’s cousin, the magazine industry, is not far behind.

The Long and Arduous Journey of the Airline Industry May be Reaching an End

The government deregulated the airline industry in 1978. Since that time, the basic pricing in the industry, as well as airline fortunes, have been more or less continuously on the downward slope. It has been a very long trip down.

The Advent of the F-Commerce Revolution

Don’t look now, but we are entering the world of F-commerce. What is that, those of you older than thirty will ask? F-commerce is selling through a Facebook page.

Cost Reduction by Redesigning the Product

Over the last several years, we have studied many examples of cost reduction initiatives to improve productivity and create economies of scale. In simplest terms, there are four actions that improve productivity and economies of scale. First, reduce the rate of cost you pay for an input. Second, reduce the inputs that do not produce output. Third, reduce unique activities or components in products and processes by redesigning the products and processes. Fourth, spread fixed cost activities over new product output. The cellular telephone carriers are introducing measures to reduce their costs by redesigning the product.

The Japanese Pay the Price

The figures are in for U.S. auto sales in 2010. The biggest winners in percentage growth were Hyundai, at 24%, and Ford at 20%. Toyota lost .4% and Honda grew a mediocre 7%. The Japanese struggled in 2010.

But Can You Control Other Entrants?

The United Autoworkers (UAW) is on a new campaign. The union plans to organize workers in hither-to non-union foreign-owned automobile plants in the United States. This campaign may or may not work, but in the long run it will prove futile unless the union can compete in the international market, against all international auto workers.

Apple Gets Crossways with App Developers

Recently, Apple rejected a digital book application from Sony. The disagreement here is over how and when Apple collects for its services. Apple is playing a dangerous game.

Constrictions in Components Supply Support Higher Prices

Years ago we were doing some work in the roofing business. In one study, we were working on the asphalt shingle roofing manufacturing business. At the time, this was a terrible business. Returns were low, growth rates were modest, at best, and there was a good deal of overcapacity in the industry. Then the industry caught a break. A shortage in asphalt developed. This shortage of asphalt rolled through the asphalt shingle plants and restricted their output. Immediately, prices jumped, returns became attractive and industry participants breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, this asphalt shortage did not last very long. The industry shortly returned to its previous hostile condition. (See the Perspective, “What Ends Hostility?” on StrategyStreet.com.)

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Direct Edge - A Transformer Next Leader Product

A Next Leader competitor is in an extremely fortunate position. A Next Leader is a competitor or product that offers much better than industry standard performance for a low price to a specific subset of industry customers. While offering better benefits to some customers, it may reduce benefits for others. But all Next Leaders offer low prices. The Next Leader can do this because it has a very low cost structure. (See “Video #22: Definition of Next Leaders” on StrategyStreet.com.) Next Leaders do not appear in many industries. When they do appear, they can change an industry, whether the industry is in manufacturing, retail or service. For example, Toys R Us invented the Toy Retailing Category Killer, a Next Leader product. Home Depot has done much the same in hardware retailing. Other Next Leaders include the early Apple personal computer, Intuit personal financial management software, Jiffy Lube in auto services and Domino’s Pizza.

The iPhone Versus the iPhone

After nearly four years, AT&T has lost its exclusivity on Apple’s iPhone. It has been a great run. Now AT&T faces the formidable competition of Verizon, who started offering the iPhone in February of 2011. Market shares are about to shift. Let’s look at how they might change.

The Price Can Go to Zero

For many years, the fees charged by investment managers of mutual funds grew ever so slightly, gradually approaching 1.5%. Over the last few years, though, the growth in these management fees has stopped. In fact, it reversed. Last year the average management fee charged for actively managed mutual funds was 1.38%, or 138 basis points, where a basis point is one tenth of one percent. But that average is badly misleading. It’s misleading because it treats all funds, regardless of size, as the same. When you adjust the fees for the size of the funds, you find that the dollar-weighted average for actively managed funds is now below 100 basis points. Three things have caused this reversal in management fees: low returns in the stock market, the growth of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and a price war among the biggest players in the market.

Evolution of the Smart Phone Market

The smart phone market is growing at a very fast pace. The number of smart phones sold world-wide is expected to grow at a pace of more than 15% a year. This is what we call a Developing market. The smart phone market portrays some interesting developments you might expect to see in other fast-growing markets.

Best Buy in a Leader's Trap

Few industry leaders believe their prices are too high. Often, they are right. They are usually less right in a market where prices fall. Consider GM in automobiles and IBM in personal computers in the past. At one time or another, most industry leaders will get caught in a Leader’s Trap, where they assume that customers will stay loyal to their products because the low-end products do not enjoy their quality and reputation. This assumption rarely, if ever, holds. Best Buy has been in a Leader’s Trap and its assumptions won’t hold this time either.

A Very Rare Form of Pricing

Recently, Continental Airlines introduced a new service called “FareLock.” This new service gives travelers three days, or a week, to decide whether to buy a ticket and avoid a fare increase or the risk that the passenger’s flight will sell out. In return, Continental plans to charge a flat fee of $5 for a three day hold and $9 for a one week hold. Continental is offering its passengers a Call. For a fee, the passenger has the right to buy the ticket at today’s price for a few days into the future. This is a very rare form of pricing outside of the securities market.

Google at Risk

Google continues to dominate the search market. It commands about two-thirds of all the searches done on the internet. Its next closest rival is Microsoft’s Bing which, at 28% market share, includes its integration with Yahoo’s site. (See “Audio Tip #9: Introduction to Step 3 of the Basic Strategy Guide” on StrategyStreet.com.) Google’s dominance in this market has brought with it a disproportionate share of the spending on paid advertising. Google may be putting that premium position at risk.

Strangling the Goose

Some time ago, we wrote a blog (see HERE) on the declining value of airline miles programs. At the time, we noted that most of those miles awarded were worth less than a cent. In fact, the airlines themselves believe that these miles are worth far less than a cent. That means the miles that you gain return less than 1% of your spending to your account.

A Price Leader Market and Competitor

In StrategyStreet terms, a competitor or product that offers below industry standard performance for a very low price is a Price Leader. Price Leaders contrast with the typical industry leaders who set standards for the industry, called Standard Leaders in our terms. The competitors or products at the higher end of the market are called Performance Leaders.

The Holiday Season: The Most Creative Pricing Season We Have

Watch the deals that retailers offer during the Christmas season. They find ever more creative ways to get us into their stores and shopping. I want to note a couple of these creative ways.

Sometimes Smaller is Better

Retailers suffered through the last two years with low or declining sales as typical consumers struggled with an economy in the doldrums. Some of these retailers experimented with cost cutting and discovered an innovation for customers.

Nokia Makes a Bet in the Smart Phone Market

Nokia has a big problem in the smart phone market. It has to do something to change its outlook. It just made a bet with the choice of its pathway to the future.

Abercrombie - Recovering in a Falling Price Environment

Nearly two years ago, we began a series of blogs about Abercrombie & Fitch (See Blogs HERE, HERE and HERE). Abercrombie & Fitch had been in a Leader’s Trap, where the company held prices high despite the onslaught of discounting competitors, including Aeropostale and American Eagle Outfitters. (See “Audio Tip #119: A Price Umbrella” on StrategyStreet.com.) The discounting competitors gained share while Abercrombie & Fitch lost it, sometimes in handfuls. In fact, all throughout 2008 and 2009, sales at stores opened at least a year declined.

A Fast Growing Market Begins Developing Reliability and Convenience Innovations

In a fast growing market, new Functions and lower Price drive more share gains than do Reliability and Convenience (see Customer Buying Hierarchy descriptions on StrategyStreet.com in the Perspective, “How Customers Buy” and in “Video 25: Short Explanation of Customer Buying Hierarchy”). After awhile, though, market growth begins to slow and Function innovations become less important than innovations in Reliability and Convenience. We can see this developing in the wireless applications market.

Costs - The Problem with Weak Constraints

Here are two random observations of the results that any manager can expect to face when there is little to no constraint on the level of costs in an organization.

I Guess it Takes Bankruptcy...

In our previous blog (see Here), we described the resuscitation of the comatose manufacturing employment due to renewed flexibility in many union shops, such as GM. I guess it takes bankruptcy to get attitudes to change. Look at American Airlines, for an example.

Green Shoots in Attitudes and Jobs

Here is something that may surprise you. We are now gaining manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Manufacturing employment has fallen every year since 1998, until 2010. Since the beginning of 2010, there has been a 1.6% gain in manufacturing jobs. That’s twice the pace of the growth in other private sector jobs. The unemployment rate for the manufacturing has improved from 13% in December of 2009 to 9.5% in August of 2010. That’s a better performance than that of the overall labor force.

The ETF Arms Race

In our previous blog (See Here), we discussed Vanguard and its unseating of Fidelity as the largest money manager in the U.S. Vanguard has done this with low-priced attacks on virtually every market Fidelity serves. Fidelity, and much of the rest of the market, is allowing Vanguard to get away with this, at least for now. In this blog, we want to see how pricing affects even a fast-growing market and then watch what happens when a Vanguard flexes its muscles in such a fast-growing market.

Vanguard vs. Fidelity

We are going to use this blog, and the next one, to speak more about pricing. Over the years, we have learned some surprising things about pricing. For example, in the average market, price moves much less share than most people assume. (See the Perspective, “The Price Segment” on StrategyStreet.com.) In most markets, the true price-driven market share volatility is 15% or less of the current volatile, changing, market share. You might ask how that can be. But the explanation is relatively easy. Most of us buy most of the things we purchase on the basis of a unique Function, better Reliability, or more Convenience, before we even get to Price. Did you buy your last car on the basis of Price? How about those snow skis? Were they the cheapest on the market? Do you stay in the cheapest hotels or drink the cheapest beer? True Price buyers are in the minority. And before these buyers get to Price in the decision sequence, they have satisfied themselves that there is no important difference among competitors on Function, Reliability or Convenience.

Previews of Coming Attractions in Public Services

A generation ago, public servants earned less than equivalent employees in the private sector. This is no longer the case. Many reports today suggest that public servants earn 25% or more greater compensation than equivalent private sector employees. While a percentage of the workforce employed in private industry union shops has steadily declined for more than thirty years, unionization in the public sector has grown rapidly. This is important because of the inflexibility of many unions in changing work rules and compensation when confronted with economic realities such as tightening budgets.

Dominick's Finds a Way to Reduce Price...Successfully

Dominick’s is a wholly owned unit of Safeway, the large retail grocer. They have found a way to use price to gain share in a highly competitive price environment.

Microsoft Phone 7 - A Long Row to Hoe

Recently, Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 7 Mobile software. This is all new software that Microsoft hopes will stop its slide in market share. It is going to have tough sledding.

The Fall of an Industry Leader - Part II

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in September of 2010. According to reports, the company was done in by the online service of Netflix and the in-retail store kiosks of Red Box. That is only partly true. The company was done in, first by its failure to recognize and respond to market opportunities when others created them and, second, by its determination to extract higher prices than its performance in the market warranted. Its failure as a company was a long time coming. It started in the late 1990’s. Since 2002, the company has lost more than $4 billion. Its market value fell from $4 billion eight years ago to just $12 million at the time of the bankruptcy.

The Fall of an Industry - Part 1

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in September of 2010. According to reports, the company was done in by the online service of Netflix and the in-retail store kiosks of Red Box. That is only partly true. The company was done in, first by its failure to recognize and respond to market opportunities when others created them and, second, by its determination to extract higher prices than its performance in the market warranted. Its failure as a company was a long time coming. It started in the late 1990’s. Since 2002, the company has lost more than $4 billion. Its market value fell from $4 billion eight years ago to just $12 million at the time of the bankruptcy.

Market Share Volatility in a Fast Growing Market

The smart phone market continues to grow quickly. The market for the operating systems on smart phones illustrates one of the patterns you will see in a fast growing market.

How Hostility Starts

Many years ago, I had the good fortune of living in London for three years. During that time, I would often have lunch in one of London’s many public houses, “pubs” to you and me. They served rich and ample fare such as Shepard’s pie, sliced turkey sandwiches and, of course, English “bitter.” Sometimes, after work, I would meet friends for a drink at the same pubs. When I traveled the countryside, I could always rely on a local pub to provide good food and drinks at reasonable prices. They were a more comfortable equivalent of a fast food restaurant. And they were great places to socialize.

P&G Takes Off the Gloves

Last year, Procter & Gamble suffered as consumers shifted their purchases away from P&G’s feature-rich products toward lower cost, and less feature-laden, products. Some consumer research indicates that the majority of consumers believe that the lower cost products are as good as, or better, than the higher cost products in many of these P&G markets. P&G was suffering share losses. (See “Basic Strategy Guide Step 7” on StrategyStreet.com.) Ever sensitive to the will of the consumer, P&G has shifted course, at least temporarily. Where it spent the last several years developing new features and benefits for its products, it now has determined to beat back competition with lower prices.

A Pricing Scheme Guaranteed to Fail

There is a new gift card brokerage product coming to the online market. It’s called CardWoo.com. This company buys your unwanted gift cards at a discount. You mail in your card and they will send you a check for it. The amount of the check, as a percentage of the card value, is not stated in their online information. You, then, have fourteen days to decide whether to accept the check or send it back and get your gift card back.

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.

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 StrategyStreet.com.) 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'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.

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.

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 StrategyStreet.com.) 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.

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.

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.

Reliability in the Purchase Decision

In our StrategyStreet analytical framework, a customer subjects a potential supplier to two levels of elimination: invitation and evaluation. With “invitation”, the customer decides who he will spend any time considering in the purchase decision. In “evaluation”, the customer eliminates potential suppliers on its most important purchasing criteria. Then, the customer analyzes the remaining potential suppliers in detail in order to make his final choice. At both levels, the customer is looking to eliminate suppliers, not to choose one. (See the Perspective, “The Tallest Dwarf” on StrategyStreet.com.) In the final analysis, most buying decisions are the result of the elimination of all other competitors, rather than the positive choice of one of them.

Reliability in High End Cars

Several years ago, BMW ran into a problem with its technologically advanced automobiles. It found that some customers were reluctant to buy their cars because the customers were concerned about the cost of maintaining products with such high technology. But BMW believed in its product and felt that the customer should believe equally. So, for more than the last ten years, BMW has offered free maintenance with its new cars. For four years, or 50,000 miles, a BMW customer will not pay for maintenance except for gas and tires. BMW continues to gain share and profitability in the North American market. (See “Audio Tip #160: How Do We Segment Customers by Emotional Needs?” on StrategyStreet.com.) Competitors have noticed.

The Decline of an Industry Leader

In a tough, highly competitive market place, the avoidance of Failure and a company’s reputation for Reliability are critical to long term success. (See “Video #14: Definition of Reliability” on StrategyStreet.com.) Dell is an example.

The Importance of Consistency in the Approach to Pricing

A company has to send a consistent pricing message if it wants its customers to get its message. An example is Asda. Asda is the U.K. arm of Wal-Mart stores. Asda has always advertised itself as the home of “every day low prices.” It strayed from this message during the recession.

Pricing in Easy Industries

Here is an example where relatively small differences in price, in normally easy industries, have a big effect in the market.

Situation Bad...About to Get Worse

Over the last year, the U.S. government spent $80 million to prop up General Motors and Chrysler. The intent was to save millions of American manufacturing jobs. The benefits seem to be temporary, at best.

Dis-Economies of Scale

McKinsey research has found that only 10% of cost reduction programs sustain their results after three years. The problem seems to be overhead. Companies have exploited manufacturing efficiencies to reduce the cost of goods sold as a percentage of revenues by nearly 3% over the past decade. On the other hand, sales, general and administrative costs have remained about the same. The performance of sales, general and administrative SG&A costs is an example of dis-economies of scale.

What Happens When Giants Rumble?

Over the last few years, Allstate Corporation, the big insurer of homes and automobiles, has concentrated its management efforts on producing industry-leading profitability. Profits have increased but the stock price has gone nowhere. And Allstate is losing market share.

Finding a Home for Orphaned Products

The pharmaceutical industry has taken steps in the last few years to reduce the cost of bringing a new drug to market. Pfizer has developed a novel approach.

A Win on Both Price and Convenience

A few forward-thinking retailers have adopted predictive analytics in their loyalty programs. Among the few to use this tool today are Sam’s Club, CVS and Kroger. These programs offer both Convenience and Price advantages to individual customers. It is a true break-through innovation.

Here We Go Again

The leader of the United Auto Workers is retiring. He is leaving a union under siege. By 2009, UAW membership was about half of the level of 1995. The union has hemorrhaged members as the big three domestic automobile producers have shrunk in market share, lost billions of dollars, and closed plants.

Defending the Low Cost Position

The last couple of years have been very tough on the hotel industry. Now, some of the mainline hotel companies are starting to recover, but the high-end hotels continue their prolonged suffering. A typical example are the Four Seasons hotels. Last year the occupancy rate at the chain’s hotels was below 60% and revenue per available room, a key measure of sales, fell 26%. There are 82 Four Seasons hotels. At least 12 of them reputedly are near the breaking point.

Mobile Hears Big Footsteps

A short while ago, we wrote a blog about Radio Shack’s rebranding itself (See Blog HERE) as primarily a mobile product carrier. At the time, we predicted that Radio Shack would have a difficult time competing on Function with Best Buy. Though, it would be more Convenient than the average Best Buy. (See “Video #26: Example of the Customer Buying Hierarchy at Work” on StrategyStreet.com.)

How to Fail in a Market You Dominate

The cable T.V. companies are the big dogs in the television industry. So far, no one has been able to unseat them, though they seem to be trying to unseat themselves. The cable industry is losing customers to satellite T.V. and phone companies entering the video market. The rate of these customer losses is significant.

More Steel Capacity. Why?

China’s Anshan Iron and Steel Group has announced plans to invest in up to five new steel mills along with a U.S. domestic partner. The last time I looked, the U.S. was swimming in excess steel capacity. So why would this company enter the U.S. to add to an already over-supplied market? This is a political decision, not an economic one. Though, politics will obviously translate into dollars and cents eventually.

No Red Letter Day for BlueStar

Illinois opened its electricity market for non-residential customers in 1999. In 2010, about 75% of the electric load for commercial and industrial customers is purchased through alternative suppliers. That deregulation was a big success.

How to Become the Industry Leader

Charles Schwab is the clear leader in the online brokerage world. While there have been hiccups in its development from a simple discount broker to a full-fledged online brokerage firm offering a range of products, the company has always maintained its leadership in the retail brokerage business. It focuses on the individual investor and, importantly, on investment advisors who manage retail customer accounts.

Can a High End Guy Hit the Mass Market?

Starbucks is a high-end competitor in the fast food industry. We call these high-end competitors Performance Leaders (see “Audio Tip #82: Performance Leader Products and Companies” on StrategyStreet.com). As individuals, these Performance Leaders almost always have small market shares. Starbucks has 4% of the U.S. market for brewed coffee. As a group, Performance Leader market shares usually fall below 15% of a total market. Sometimes these Performance Leaders, following the allure of the volume in the mass market, create products to enter the mass market. We call the competitors who serve the mass market as their primary function Standard Leaders. Standard Leaders control the majority of most markets.

What's Missing in Internet Retailing

Every year I buy several things online. I don’t like to shop in stores because I usually need to buy only one thing. I hate to take the time to go to a store to buy just one item.

Always Low Prices Meets Lower Prices

Wal-Mart has come to dominate the grocery industry by offering wide product choices and low prices in their 2700 super centers. The company today is the biggest of the industry’s Standard Leaders. (See “Audio Tip #181: Using Physical Measures to Control Costs” on StrategyStreet.com.) And because the company has a well earned reputation for low prices, it found new customers during the last recession.

Coming Back from the Dead

RadioShack Corporation has re-imagined itself as a major seller of smart phones. In an effort to get past its old and dowdy image, it has rebranded itself as “The Shack.” Today, it devotes about half of its relatively small stores’ shelf space to smart phones. It offers phones for most of the major carriers, as well as the Apple iPhone. This re-imaging seems to be helping the company. Its sales and stock price are on the rise.

Convenience and Reliability Innovations in a Fast Growing Market

In a rapidly growing market, one growing faster than 15% a year in units, Function innovations tend to dominate market share movement. That is, Function innovations move more market share, on average, than do innovations in Reliability and Convenience. Often, the second major driver of market share movement in a fast-growing market is Price. Low prices and low-end competition often expand the market and cause significant market share shifts at the same time.

Hey, We Got New Features

We have written several times about the Customer Buying Hierarchy. See some examples HERE, HERE and HERE. This Hierarchy holds that customers buy Function, Reliability, Convenience and Price, and in that order. Most people assume that new Functions or Features drive a great deal of market share change. In most industries, this is not the case. In a Hostile industry, it is not the case at all. I recently read of two industries who stress Function innovation today. One will succeed with this kind of innovation. The other will have, at best, fleeting success with it. Function innovations work best, and are sometimes critical to the success of a company, in high-growth and stable high-profit industries. (See the Perspective, “When to Compete on Features” on StrategyStreet.com.) They are much less helpful in a very tough Hostile industry.

A Tale of Colorblindness Lost

The farm equipment industry is well known for the colors on the equipment of its major suppliers. Deere’s equipment is green, Caterpillar’s is yellow, and New Holland sports a blue color. Normally, customers are very loyal to the “colors” in the industry. This year, however, some customers are losing their green colorblindness. This loss of customer loyalty is coming as a result of a difficult trade-off Deere had to make. This loss of colorblindness also illustrates the way market share moves in many markets.

Who Are Those Guys?

Whenever an industry finds itself in the enviable position of having freedom in pricing, it usually finds that competition emerges out of the woodwork, from the least expected places. In many cases, the companies in these industries don’t conceive of new competition really having much of a chance to emerge. If they do see competition, they usually dismiss that competition as incapable of offering real competition.

Pricing Flexibility

Monsanto is the dominant leader in the seed business. It has led in the development of genetically modified seeds for corn, soy beans and cotton. This spring, the company introduced new second generation versions of its herbicide tolerant soy bean line and its herbicide and pest resistant corn seed. The company expected to sell enough of the soy bean line to plant 8 to 10 million acres and enough of the corn line to plant 4 million acres. Instead, the farmers bought 6 million acres worth of the soy bean line and 3 million acres worth of the corn line. The overall demand for seeds was down somewhat due to the depressed economy, but DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred seed line also gained share against Monsanto.

Investment Turf Wars

Over the last year, U.S. investors have pulled over $20 billion out of domestic stock funds and replaced these investments, in large part, with bond funds. Not every type of stock fund suffered, however. The February 2010 data illustrate this. Domestic stock funds, during that month, suffered $3.7 billion in withdrawals. On the other hand, international stock funds gained $4.6 billion. But the big winners were domestic Exchange Traded Equity Funds. They gained $4.8 billion. These ETFs are attracting investors with their very low costs in management fees and superior tax efficiency over the average mutual fund. Their growth is also an indication that investors have become more price-sensitive than they have been in the past. (See the Symptom & Implication, “Customers are more price sensitive” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Creating Economies of Scale in the Auto Industry

The German automakers are under some pressure. They need to have a small car in their product line-up in order to respond both to consumers’ growing preferences for smaller cars and to government pressures to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. BMW has answered with its One series. Volkswagen has taken a 20% stake in Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation, which is a small car specialist. Mercedes Benz has decided to go an alliance route.

Using Finance to Reduce a Price

Dell is struggling to keep up with HP in the personal computer market. There is one part of the market, though, where Dell remains the clear leader, the small business market. Part of the reason for the company’s success in this market is its financing package. It is more generous with financial support than its competition. It may offer interest-free financing when companies purchase $25,000 or more of new computers. The company offers other creative financing deals. In one of these deals, a customer bought $30,000 of computers on a three-year lease plan that allows the customer to keep the equipment when the lease expires. Overall, Dell says that 22% of its small and medium-size business customers use Dell to finance their purchases. This 22% is up from 17% just two years ago. The company is gaining share by using its financing muscle, despite the chancy economic environment.

A Low-End Competitor with Low Industry Costs

Southwest Airlines is an unusual competitor. Since its inception, the company has been a low-end, discount competitor. What makes it an odd duck is that it provides service levels equivalent to the industry’s large legacy carriers while it also has very low costs compared to the industry’s erstwhile leaders, such as Delta, United and American Airlines. Southwest enjoys this low cost structure because it is less encumbered by onerous union work rules. Southwest has unionized employees, but their work rules are less restrictive than are those of the legacy airlines. Southwest uses this low cost structure to reduce prices and gain share against their larger legacy competitors. This has been going on for long enough that Southwest really is approaching industry leader status, if it’s not there already. Surely flying Southwest has become nearly as convenient and comfortable as flying one of the legacy airlines. The service of the legacy airlines has come to the level of Southwest, rather than the other way around.

New Capacity in a Shrinking Market

Big companies are pulling out of the petroleum refining industry. In the last year, Shell, Chevron, Valero and Sunoco have put refineries up for sale or shut them down. There is simply too much capacity in the industry. But there seems to be one guy coming in through the exit doors in the refining industry. Marathon Oil just opened a new $4 billion addition to its Louisiana refinery. Further, the company announced that it made a profit in all six of its other refineries in the U.S. in 2009. 2009 was a terrible year for the U.S. refinery business. 2010 isn’t much better.

Recycling of Capacity in a Tough Market

Sweden is a small country with a proud tradition of producing tough, high-end, automobiles. We call these high-end products Performance Leaders. In a hostile market, a Performance Leader usually suffers from scale disadvantages compared to the much larger industry leaders, whom we call Standard Leaders. Often, these Performance Leaders become acquisitions for the industry’s Standard Leaders. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is consolidating through mergers and acquisitions” on StrategyStreet.com.) That was the case when GM bought Saab and Ford bought Volvo.

Winning and Failing in a Marketplace

Analysts widely expect that Apple will offer its popular iPhone through Verizon by the end of this year. In anticipation of the loss of its iPhone exclusivity, AT&T is busy upgrading its network in an attempt to retain its current customer base in the face of the prospective Verizon competition. This story provides a useful illustration of how winning and failing works in a marketplace.

The Math Still Works

Since the year 2000, medical care has increased in cost by 49%. Food is up 32%. But automobiles are flat and apparel is down 8%. Part of the reason for the better performance of automobiles and apparel has been the extreme stress of competition both of those industries have suffered. But the growth in the cost of medical care pales in comparison with the increased cost of college tuition and fees. That’s up 92% since 2000. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry has been able to preserve margins by increasing prices” on StrategyStreet.com.) All of this data comes by way of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yep, Those Germans are the Problem

There has been much press over the last few weeks about the problems in the Euro Zone. Most particularly, we have learned more than we may want to know about the problems of deficit spending in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. Just recently, though, we may have learned that the problem is not the deficit spending in those recessionary countries. No, the problem seems to be the Germans.

Another Quieter Challenge from Below

The majority of citizens go to banks for credit cards, loans and other day-to-day financial transactions. Over the last few years, the banks have easily pushed through significant fee increases in all of their services because most people deal only with one bank and are unlikely to want to go to the trouble to change banks to get lower prices. The result is that lower prices aren’t offered, at least not to the average citizen. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry has been able to preserve margins by increasing prices” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Meeting a Challenge from Below

Boeing and Airbus have an interesting problem. These two companies had been sparring back and forth for several years in the large plane market. The industry’s largest customers, such as United and Republic Airways Holdings, are among the most important customers for the large planes and thus for Boeing and Airbus.

Wal-Mart and the Customer Buying Hierarchy

Recently, Wal-Mart found that it was losing some customers to competitors. After examining the reasons why, the company discovered that some of its customers were leaving because Wal-Mart had eliminated some of the products the customers were used to buying at Wal-Mart. This situation gives us the opportunity to look at the Customer Buying Hierarchy in a retail business.

Reliability in Tough Markets

The stats for the light vehicle sales in the U.S. during the month of February are out. Of course, Toyota’s sales shrank by nearly 9%. The surprising big winner was Ford, whose sales increased 43%, far more than anyone else. Its nearest competitor, Nissan, had a sales increase of 29%. GM’s sales increased by 12%. What may be driving this superb performance from Ford?

An Update on Cutting Capacity to Raise Prices

Several months ago, we wrote a blog (See Blog Here) that noted the capacity reductions in the airline industry. In particular, the large legacy airlines were reducing their capacity in order to raise industry pricing. At the time, this effort was showing relatively little help with industry pricing.

The Pre Looks to Go Post

Nine months ago, Palm introduced its new Pre smart-phone. On the occasion of that introduction, we wrote a blog (See Blog Here) predicting that the Pre would have a difficult time competing in this fast-growing market. It’s problem? Lack of apps. At the time, Apple had 35,000 apps. That number has now grown to well over 100,000. Other competitors today have as many as 20,000 or more apps available. The Pre has relatively few. Its shortage of apps has shown up in its market share. Recently it had 5% of the smart-phone market, a long way behind Apple’s 18% and Blackberry’s 43%.

Pricing Myths

There is a price war going on in the retail liquor department. This is good news for those of us who enjoy a drink but bad news for the liquor companies.

The Price Advantage of Reliability

We use the Customer Buying Hierarchy to evaluate many developments in a market. This Customer Buying Hierarchy argues that customers buy Function, Reliability, Convenience and Price, in that order, when making a purchase. The customer does not buy until he finds one company who can offer him a benefit in a category of interest to him that no other competitor can offer.

To Bundle or Not to Bundle, That is the Question

For years, the cable industry has bundled its channels into tiers. They create “buy-throughs” which require a customer to purchase more than one tier to get to a particular channel the customer may want. For example, if the customer would like to have a channel in the second tier, the customer must also purchase the first tier along with the second tier bundle, of course, at a higher price.

Impressive Results from a Change in Pricing Strategy

About a year ago, we wrote a blog about the leading ski resort in Northern California, Squaw Valley, emerging from a Leader’s Trap (see Blog here). We predicted at the time that Squaw Valley would gain market share quickly as a result of its change in pricing strategy. The preliminary results from this change in strategy are in. They are impressive.

Retailers as the Source of Creativity

It seems that retailers are often on the leading edge when it comes to innovation and creativity in their crafting offerings. They have an excellent sense of how their customers think.

Look Out Below

The small consumer battery business is in the midst of a price war. The short-term losers in this war will be the industry leaders. But the longer term losers would be the low-end Price Leader competitors in the market.

Can the Small Survive?

After months of back and forth, Kraft Foods has now reached a firm agreement to buy Cadbury. This may be a good thing for Kraft. Warren Buffett demurs due to the price. The jury is out. However, this merger may not be good for some of the other competitors in the industry. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is consolidating through mergers and acquisitions” on StrategyStreet.com.) In particular, some industry observers are pointing to the precarious position of Hershey. They note that Hershey will be a very small competitor in the global confectionary business. That may be, but I would not be so fast to write off Hershey’s chances of survival. Often the smaller firms are more profitable than the largest firms in the industry.

Hit Them on Both Sides of the Head

One of our local newspapers is running a series on the problems of public transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area. The problem seems to be that ridership is well off of plan. The economy, and its attendant reduction in jobs and squeeze on commuter pocketbooks, has reduced demand.

The Ostrich Syndrom

In 1960, the city of Chicago built McCormick Place. This facility was the first convention building built specifically to hold very large national conventions. McCormick Place put Chicago, as a convention center, on the map, where it stayed as one of the top convention destinations for the last fifty years. Now clouds gather on the horizon. Several large conventions have cancelled their Chicago venue and switched to other cities, like Las Vegas or Orlando. They site Chicago’s high cost and complex labor work rules (see “Video #9: Overcapacity and How it Develops”).

Acquisitions to Gain Product Capability

There are three primary reasons to make an acquisition. First, the acquirer may use the acquisition to reduce its cost by consolidating and reducing the total cost of overlapping cost functions. Second, the acquirer may seek to gain a new set of customers. And, third, the acquirer may be seeking a product capability which it does not have. In general, we believe that a successful acquisition will meet at least two out of these three criteria.

Price Increases in a Recession

Our recession continues, but not every industry suffers in this recession. One industry that is not suffering today is the auto rental market. The average rental rate, at an airport, for a compact car in 2009 was up over 50% from that of 2008. This, while demand in 2009 fell 20%. What accounts for this surprising result of a price rise despite a fall-off in demand? Capacity reduction. (See “Audio Tip #116: The Withdrawal of Capacity to Raise Prices” on StrategyStreet.com.)

A Pyrrhic Victory?

Wal-Mart stores and Costco Wholesale are disrupting markets again. The market they are disrupting today is the grocery industry. In truth, they have been disrupting the grocery industry for the last several years, to the point that Wal-Mart is now the largest grocery store company in the country. These two competitors drain their competition of their life blood by using low prices. The recession, along with the pressure applied by Wal-Mart and Costco, has reduced the consumer pricing index for food by nearly 3% over the last year.

A Concentrated Industry

Over the last few years, the exchange traded fund (ETF) business has exploded as the advantages of exchanged traded funds attract investors away from individuals picking stock or investing in mutual funds. (See Audio “Tip #1: Defining a Business” on StrategyStreet.com) The industry manages nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars in assets.

Is The Mojo Coming Back?

In early February, we did a blog on Abercrombie & Fitch and its Leader’s Trap (see blog Here). The company refused to lower its prices for fear of damaging its high-end, exclusive image. (See “Audio Tip #134: What are the Objectives of Our Pricing Policy?” on StrategyStreet.com.) The blog predicted that Abercrombie would have to lower its prices anyway.

Make Them Wait

Three of the largest book publishers have decided to delay the release of their most popular new books to the e-Book market. This is unlikely to be a successful experiment. But another experiment from a fourth publisher offers promise.

Divorce that Customer?

Times are tough for business in many industries. Demand is off, prices are falling, and competition is fierce. Some companies have responded to these difficult conditions by divorcing their high-cost customers. Is this a good idea?

Paying Attention to Low-End Competitors

When do we have to pay attention to low-end competitors? The cell phone operating system business gives us an indication.

One Up, One Down, One Sideways

Three of the leaders of the automobile industry are presenting some interesting new stories. First, General Motors. The new Chairman of General Motors is Edward Whitacre. He is not a car guy. He came from the telecommunications industry, most recently as Chief Executive at AT&T. The Chairman recently asked the head of engineering at GM to call all the customers who had turned in their new cars under a recent quality program. This program offered customers a 60 day money-back guarantee. It allowed a customer who was unhappy with his automobile to turn it back to GM for a full refund. The head of the engineering group charged with calling the new customers noted that the focus on customer satisfaction was new at GM…and long overdue. This is a hopeful development for GM.

Fewer Customers? Cut Capacity

For a year now the economy has weighed down passenger airline traffic. The industry expects a 4% reduction in passenger volume for 2009’s Thanksgiving season compared to the previous year. And, as demand has fallen, so have prices. Ticket prices this year are down 13% compared to 2008, so the industry is getting hit twice: by a fall-off in passenger seat miles flown, and by falling prices per seat mile. (See the Symptom & Implication “Demand in the industry is falling” on StrategyStreet.com.)

The Wrong Customer

CVS Caremark is struggling. The Caremark side, which is a pharmacy-benefit manager, is bleeding losses and major customers. The company picked the wrong customers.

Let Someone Else Pay the Freight

Some lucky companies have discovered ways to get other people to carry costs on their behalf. (See “Video #62: How to Improve a Cost Structure” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Microsoft is Leaving Money on the Table

Every few years, Microsoft introduces a new version of its very popular Office product. The last version was Office 2007. The next will be Office 2010. As often happens with technology upgrade innovations, the new versions sometimes do not offer enough additional benefits to justify all the customers of the old version spending on the upgrade. Office 2003 attracted 60% of the existing Office customers when it came out. Current expectations are for Office 2007 to attract somewhere between 50% and 55% of existing Office users to upgrade. So, somewhere between 40% and 45% of the current Microsoft Office market will not upgrade to the next version.

Fish or Fowl?

The internet has given birth to another retail concept. A new set of retail start-ups specialize in discounted designer apparel. These web site based companies include Gilt.com, RueLaLa.com and HauteLook.com. These companies offer “private sales” to customers on a membership list. Each day the companies send an email offering “members only” sales on expensive designer goods. These goods are discounted heavily and are a year old, but these sites have been very popular. They are growing at a rate of over 20% a year. (See the Symptom & Implication “Small discounting competitors have gained a market toehold” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Digits Save Lives...and Costs by Improving Effectiveness

Part 2
Some hospitals, along with some health insurance companies, are using video technology to connect patients in outlying areas with specialists in urban centers. This video technology connects local and regional hospitals to large urban medical centers where most medical specialists practice medicine.

Digits Save Lives...and Costs by Improving Efficiency

Some hospitals, along with some health insurance companies, are using video technology to connect patients in outlying areas with specialists in urban centers. This video technology connects local and regional hospitals to large urban medical centers where most medical specialists practice medicine.

The Basis of Charge

Every price has at least two components: a set of performance benefits associated with the product and a unit price. The unit price is what we call the basis of the charge. This basis is the unit measure the company uses to quantify the price for the product. When you change the basis of charge, you usually change the effective price at the same time. Normally, the basis of the charge, or unit price, expresses a major cost that the supplier of the product incurs. A trucking company charges by weight. Lumber sells by dimension. Gasoline sells by a volume measure. Paper sells by weight.

A Lay-up for Lay-away

Toys R Us has introduced a lay-away program for large ticket items that they sell. These items include bikes, dollhouses, play kitchens, car seats, cribs, strollers and other expensive items. This new program from Toys R Us follows successful similar initiatives by Sears and K-Mart last year.

The Challenge of a Small Competitor Part 2

There is a new, small, credit card issuing company in the market. The company is PartnersFirst and they promise to change the credit card world by making that world more cardholder friendly. This new firm, based in Wilmington, Delaware, has introduced an unusual credit card. The card has no fees and relatively low borrowing rates, along with less onerous penalties. The upstart company challenges the four giants in the industry, Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Capital One. Industry veterans formed and run this new credit card company. They believe that the company’s card should be particularly attractive in the light of new Federal rules that restrict credit card practices.

The Challenge of a Small Competitor

Part 1: Segments and Products

There is a new, small, credit card issuing company in the market. The company is PartnersFirst and they promised to change the credit card world by making that world more cardholder friendly. This new firm, based in Wilmington, Delaware, has introduced an unusual credit card. The card has no fees and relatively low borrowing rates, along with less onerous penalties. The upstart company challenges the four giants in the industry, Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Capital One. Industry veterans formed and run this new credit card company. They believe that the company’s card should be particularly attractive in the light of new Federal rules that restrict credit card practices.

The NFL Starts to Play Defense

The NFL is the most popular sports league in the country. For years, it has been able to increase its revenues by selling television time, licensed products, and even tickets to games. This easy market came to an end with this recession. Three quarters of the NFL clubs have held ticket prices flat this year. Even then, only twenty clubs sold out the tickets for their home games. So, ticket sales revenues are likely to drop this season.

The Tables Have Turned

Just a few years ago, Dell Computer was the darling of the PC industry. Hewlett-Packard was an also-ran. Today the tables have turned. Over the last year, Hewlett-Packard’s market share has jumped from 18.5% to 20% of the global PC shipments. Dell’s market share has fallen from 15.7% to 13.7%. The change in market share is customers saying that HP offers a better value proposition. (See the Perspective, “The Two Best Consultants in the World” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Hostility's End Game

The late 80’s and 90’s were hostile times for the beer industry. The period saw constant price wars. All the domestic competitors, except for Anheuser Busch, suffered from relatively low returns. A hostile industry is notable for constant pricing pressure and very low returns in the industry. The brewing industry certainly fit that description for a long period of time.

You Mean I Have to Pay for This?

Those of us who fly a lot have noticed how few people have a meal on an airplane anymore. In flight food was attractive when we got it for free, much less so when we have to pay for it.

From Cheap to Chic

Do you know what a Hyundai is? How about a Kia? Of course you do. They are South Korean automakers. Though they are not top of the consumer mind in the U.S., they are a rising pair. They both belong to the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group. Globally, this automotive group is the fourth largest automaker. Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen rank ahead of them. And the South Korean Group is gaining share at a rapid rate. Ten years ago it was the eleventh largest global automaker.

Clever Pricing from Toys R Us

Toys R Us has created the “Great Trade-In” event. This event offers consumers who bring used cribs, car seats or other baby products into a Babies R Us or Toys R Us location a 20% discount on any new product from selected manufacturers in the store.

As Small as a Man's Hand

After several years of extreme drought in Israel, the prophet Elijah sent his servant to look on the horizon for a cloud. The servant returned to say that he had seen a cloud on the horizon but it was as small as a man’s hand. However, in short order, that little cloud turned into a deluge and ended the drought in Israel. This story had a happy ending. There is a small cloud on the horizon for consumer goods that may not have such a happy ending. The retail market share of consumer goods is falling, while that of private labels is growing.

Slowing Up Hulu?

The U.S. online video ad market is growing at 30% a year. Still, it is just a small fraction of total U.S. T.V. advertising spending. The leader in the online market is Hulu. GE’s NBC Universal, News Corporation, and Walt Disney are Hulu’s owners. Hulu and some other video sites provide free professionally-produced videos from its investors. Hulu exists on an advertising business model. Hulu will place one or two thirty-second ad spots during a few commercial breaks for hour-long shows.

The China Plan for Purchases

China has adopted an interesting plan to reduce the rate of cost it pays for the metals and ores it purchases.

Membership Privileges

The snow skiing season is still a few months away. Still, in preparation for the upcoming season, the ski equipment promotions are underway. One of my favorites comes from Granite Chief. This is a fine retailer of ski equipment in Truckee, California. Each year, the company makes an offer to its customers: Purchase your Ski Service Card by August 31st for $100 and you will have a credit balance for $200 to be used on any of the company’s repair, mounting, tuning and boot-fitting services. Each time the card holder has equipment serviced by the store, Granite Chief will deduct the labor cost from the customer’s Ski Service Card credit. The credit is good only for labor. Any unused balances are not refundable and will not be carried over to the next season. The card expires on May 31, 2010.

The eBook Competition

Amazon and its Kindle products have had the eBook market to themselves since the market began taking off a couple of years ago. The eBook market is now starting to grow fairly fast. Sony has decided to grab some of that growth.

Sony in the Game Business

Sony has just introduced a new PlayStation3. This product comes in a new slim form factor. Its price is $299. This is a 25% reduction from the $399 price of the current model of the PlayStation3. The price cut comes as the PS3 has struggled against its competitors, whose products have carried lower prices. Sony was in a Leader’s Trap.

Couponing and Price Leaders

In the bleak economy in the first half of 2009, coupon redemption rose 19% compared to the same period in 2008. Even the largest Price Leaders (see Audio Tip #83: Price Leader Products and Companies on StrategyStreet.com) have had to go along with this development. The three largest discount clubs, Costco Warehouse, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club have increased their couponing to club members. (See Audio Tip #120: Using Low Price to Gain Share in Hostile Markets.)

Nokia Scores...and Fumbles

Nokia is an industry Standard Leader who struggles at the high end of the market.

Pricing Confusion and Its Aftermath

There were a number of articles regarding pricing over the last few days that caught my attention. Whenever a market gets difficult, many competitors, but especially the leaders, can become confused about what to do with their prices. Here are some examples of both effective and ineffective pricing decisions.

Spread Fixed Cost Activities Over More Sales Volume to Reduce Costs

Corporations have just completed the latest quarterly profit reports for publicly traded companies. Two-thirds of the publicly traded companies beat their forecast profits. Many of these companies failed to reach their forecast revenue numbers, but still reached their profit targets, or better, by reducing their costs. Since there is so much focus on the power of cost reduction in today’s margin environment, I thought it would be interesting to review the ways that a company can reduce its unit costs. To make it more interesting, I decided to use stories that I have seen over the last week in order to illustrate these techniques.

Reducing Costs by Redesigning Products and Processes

Corporations have just completed the latest quarterly profit reports for publicly traded companies. Two-thirds of the publicly traded companies beat their forecast profits. Many of these companies failed to reach their forecast revenue numbers, but still reached their profit targets, or better, by reducing their costs. Since there is so much focus on the power of cost reduction in today’s margin environment, I thought it would be interesting to review the ways that a company can reduce its unit costs. To make it more interesting, I decided to use stories that I have seen over the last week in order to illustrate these techniques.

Reducing Costs by Eliminating Non-Productive Input

Corporations have just completed the latest quarterly profit reports for publicly traded companies. Two-thirds of the publicly traded companies beat their forecast profits. Many of these companies failed to reach their forecast revenue numbers, but still reached their profit targets, or better, by reducing their costs. Since there is so much focus on the power of cost reduction in today’s margin environment, I thought it would be interesting to review the ways that a company can reduce its unit costs. To make it more interesting, I decided to use stories that I have seen over the last week in order to illustrate these techniques.

Reducing Costs by Paying a Lower Rate for Your Inputs

Corporations have just completed the latest quarterly profit reports for publicly traded companies. Two-thirds of the publicly traded companies beat their forecast profits. Many of these companies failed to reach their forecast revenue numbers, but still reached their profit targets, or better, by reducing their costs. Since there is so much focus on the power of cost reduction in today’s margin environment, I thought it would be interesting to review the ways that a company can reduce its unit costs. To make it more interesting, I decided to use stories that I have seen over the last week in order to illustrate these techniques.

A Fast-Growing Market Under Attack from Below

There are a hundred thousand job sites in the U.S. and abroad. These sites charge employers to post jobs on their web sites in order to attract qualified employees. The big three in the market include Monster, CareerBuilder and Yahoo!HotJobs. With unemployment rising world-wide, these job sites are still growing. However, they are losing market share to emerging alternatives.

Industry Contraction Exposes Potential Low Price Points

The legal industry is suffering just like the rest of us in this economy. Interestingly, not all legal firms are suffering. The firms that are suffering the most are the large firms, who have done well for many years. These firms typically bill their large clients between $700 and $800 an hour for legal work. They have more than 200 lawyers in the firm. The next tier down sees law firms with 200 or fewer lawyers. These firms typically bill clients between $200 and $500 an hour for work done by their senior partners. Overall, the smaller firms seem to be about 25% cheaper than their larger cousins. These smaller firms are actually growing in this economy. While their larger brethren are laying off lawyers, the small to medium sized firms are hiring today. (See Video #6: Competition and Low-Cost Expansion on StrategyStreet.com.)

Delivering More by Offering Less

Over the last fifteen years, the number of items offered in the typical grocery store has increased by over 50%. Customers are beginning to be confused by the number of choices offered at the grocery store. This proliferation of consumer choices is a retail-wide phenomenon. Consumer goods manufacturers have created more varieties, sizes and shadings in order to win more shelf space from retailers and more attention from consumers.

Two Companies Who Perform Well in Good or Bad Markets

The hotel industry is struggling today. Demand is off everywhere in the world. Everyone is suffering, including Marriott. But Marriott will survive, and even thrive, in this market. It has been through bad times before and always has emerged the leader in the industry. (See Audio Tip #31: Volatility in Hostile and Non-Hostile Industries on StrategyStreet.com.) It leads its industry because the top management of the company focuses all its energies on delivering a consistent, predictable product in each of its dozen or more brand names. It is known throughout the business travelers’ world as the most consistent and reliable of brands. A traveler knows exactly what to expect when staying at a Marriott branded hotel and virtually always gets what he expects.

Microsoft Gets Price Warnings from Competitors

Recently, Google announced that it was creating an operating system to work on the new small netbook computers. Netbooks are the only part of the PC market that is growing today. Google hopes to introduce an operating system there in order to serve as a stalking horse to slip into Microsoft’s share with desktop and notebook PCs.

Microsoft Gets Price Warning from its Customers

Microsoft is introducing Windows 7 to replace its unpopular Vista operating system. The company is at logger heads with its PC manufacturing customers over pricing for the new software.

Rising Prices in the Face of Falling Demand

Steel demand is down…by a great deal. The world’s steel plants are operating at less than 45% of capacity. This operating rate is one of the lowest ever. Yet, some U.S. stainless steel makers have actually raised prices by 5 to 6% since early May. The price increase does not come because of an increase in demand for stainless steel. That demand is off as well.

Industry Evolution Forces Cost Management

The evolution of a market often brings new consumers who prefer, or can afford, only low-priced products. In order to reach these consumers, a company must reduce its costs while it grows.

Two Pathways to Low Cost

There are two pathways to low cost: Focus on particular customers and their product needs; or create economies of scale. When you combine both, you have a powerful low-cost engine that is also attractive to customers.

Health Care Costs - Our Future

The debate is about to rage over healthcare costs and coverage. So, what might our future look like?

New Product in a Fast Growing Industry: Verizon in Cloud Computing

Verizon Communications recently announced that it was entering the market for cloud computing. Cloud computing is a service that allows a business to increase its computing power by using the internet, network bandwidth, on demand, from facilities operated by companies like Verizon. This market is fast-growing because it allows businesses to save the costs of building and managing their own computer facilities. Let’s use the Customer Buying Hierarchy to evaluate the prospect for Verizon’s success.

New Product in a Fast Growing Industry: Bing

After failing more than once to create an innovative and attractive search product, the persistent Microsoft is back with a new entry called Bing. Let’s use the Customer Buying Hierarchy to evaluate the prospect for the Bing’s success.

New Product in a Fast Growing Industry: The Pre

The mobile phone hand set industry is fast growing, especially the segment known as smart phones, which combine the functionality of a limited PC or a good PDA with the normal telephone hand set functions. The new Palm Pre is entering this market. Let’s use the Customer Buying Hierarchy to evaluate the prospect for the Pre’s success.

Apple Flanks its Phone Market

Apple continues to impress with its moves in the smart phone market.

How 'Bout We Throttle This Golden Goose?

Now that GM has entered bankruptcy, there are many opinions crossing the wires about the likelihood of the new GM being a successful stand-alone company. I thought I might as well add to this crowd noise.

Competing Against Low-End Competition

The consumer food industry has both an opportunity and a challenge in today’s marketplace. The opportunity comes as consumers reduce their “eating out” occasions and, instead, eat at home more frequently. The challenge is the seemingly inexorable market share growth of the less-expensive private label products. Some of the responses of the packaged food industry to these opportunities and challenges give us some insight into how to compete with low-end competitors and offset the ravages of a tough economy.

Another High Growth Industry Comes Under Assault

For many years now, large employers and governments have contracted with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to provide and administer drug coverage for their employees. In turn, the PBMs tell the employers that they will pass on a good part of their purchasing economies to save the employers’ cost. This approach has worked well for the PBMs for years. They have been highly profitable businesses.

High Growth and Falling Profits

Recently, Europe passed legislation aimed at breaking long standing monopolies in Europe’s equity trading systems. As a result, a number of alternative trading systems poured into Europe’s equity markets.

The Power of Low-End Products for Industry Leaders

Low-end products can save an industry’s bacon when the industry falls on hard times. Most low-priced products are what we call Price Leaders (see Audio Tip #83: Price Leader Products and Companies on StrategyStreet.com). These products offer less Function or Convenience than do the industry’s more important Standard Leader products, for common pricing savings of 25% or more. (See Audio Tip #81: Standard Leader Products and Companies on StrategyStreet.com.)

This Leader's Trap Comes to a Quick End

In February of 2009, we wrote a blog about Abercrombie and Fitch in a Leader’s Trap (see the blog, “A High End Retailer in a Leader’s Trap”). In that blog, we observed that Abercrombie and Fitch refused to discount its products in the marketplace, despite the fact that American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostale, two of its main competitors, were offering lower prices. We noted that Abercrombie’s market share was falling, while Aeropostale’s was clearly on the rise. We predicted that Abercrombie would have to come out of its Leader’s Trap soon by changing its pricing policy.

Future Trouble for the Branded Foods Industry

Kraft Foods, Hershey Company, Kellogg and Campbell Soup Company reported higher profits recently. The key driver of these profit improvements was higher prices. For example, Kraft Foods’ profit in the first quarter of 2009 grew 10%, while its organic revenue grew 2.3%. Investors cheered because they had feared broad-based price rollbacks in the face of a tough economy.

Punch and Counterpunch in the Online Airline Industry

Orbitz Worldwide, the online travel booking agency, competes with the likes of Travelosity and Expedia. Of the three, Orbitz is the most dependent on airline booking fee revenue for its profits. Travelocity and Expedia both reduced fees for their booking of airline tickets before Orbitz. Orbitz held on to protect its margins. Orbitz began losing market share and reversed course. It announced that it would waive booking fees on most flights booked through May. This brings its pricing in line with its competition.

Variable Pricing to Shift Demand and Increase Revenues

One of our local snow ski areas has started offering a “no wait” pass for snow skiers on busy days. The pass costs $20. This $20 comes on top of the normal day pass the skier has purchased. This additional pass allows the skier to avoid lift lines by going through the “ski school” entry. Other ski areas have begun charging substantial fees for “close-in” valet parking, while letting most skiers park for free at a further distance from the lift lines.

Saving Jobs by Outsourcing

SmithCNC-USA is an Ohio firm that helps small midwestern manufacturers obtain components and raw materials from China and Mexico. The firm’s customers are U.S. manufacturers who are doing small and medium sized production runs. These companies are under severe pressure in the United States because of relatively high costs here compared to those in China and Mexico. This company has convinced its customers that they can save a good number of their jobs, and perhaps, even grow, by outsourcing only part of their production to cheaper foreign sources. The company convinces its customers to outsource just some components in order to save the rest of the jobs in the customer’s organization.

Product Innovation Using Twitter and Tweetups - Part 2

Kraft Foods plans to introduce its DiGiorno flatbed pizza by offering to host Tweetups for influential users of Twitter (see Part 1 of this blog). In Part 1 of this blog, we described three major types of customer segmentation by need: Physical, Emotional and Intellectual. We also described patterns that companies use to innovate products to meet those needs including: providing information, reducing resources the customer requires for the use of the product and improving the experience the customer has with the product.

Product Innovation Using Twitter and Tweetups - Part 1

Over the years we have gathered several thousand examples of product innovations. We have found patterns in the needs of customers and in the approaches that companies follow to develop product innovations to meet those needs. At the highest level, a customer has three basic needs, which create three major customer segments. First, there are physical needs related to the physical situation of the customer or of the location where the product is purchased or used. Second, there are emotional needs, which reflect the customer’s personal needs for comfort, status and the avoidance of anxiety. Finally, there are intellectual needs which segment customers based on their current knowledge and understanding of the company, its products and how the products are used.

Big Cost Differences in an Industry - Part 2

McKinsey and Company has undertaken a detailed examination of Productivity in the pharmaceutical industry. This extensive study offers us an opportunity to see common patterns in cost management and productivity improvement. We described these patterns in Part 1 of this blog. These common patterns of Productivity improvement include four major concepts.

Big Cost Differences in an Industry - Part 1

The objective of every cost management system is to improve the Productivity of the Input (I) resources used to produce the final Output (O) product. These resources include the Inputs of People, Purchases and Capital. The Output is the unit of product sold. A simple measure of Productivity is Inputs divided by Outputs (P=I/O).

The End of This Story is Predictable

For a while last year, it looked like the legacy airlines were well on their way to profitability. Business and international demands were strong and the companies had pricing power. The legacy airlines attributed much of this pricing power to their strategy of removing capacity from the marketplace. Let’s look at how that capacity removal is working out over time across the entire industry.

Just when they thought it was safe...

The telephone industry has had its ups and downs over the last twenty years, but the wireless business has helped it survive nicely.

Price Leader Expansion Under Standard Leader Umbrella

Over the last year, private label sales of food and other grocery products in the U.S. have grown at over 10% per annum. These private label products are examples of Price Leaders, companies and products who offer performance less than that of the larger, industry-leading, Standard Leaders for a price substantially less than Standard Leaders.

Pricing Against a High-End Product

In StrategyStreet terminology, a Standard Leader is a company who sells the majority of its products at the most common industry price point. The most common product we call the Standard Leader product. At the high end of the market are those companies who offer products with extra features and services for prices starting about 10% higher than the Standard Leader product. We call those companies, and their products, Performance Leaders. In the personal computer industry, Apple is a Performance Leader; Dell and Hewlett Packard are Standard Leaders.

The Exceptional Growth of a Price Leader Product

In our terminology, a Price Leader product is a low-end competitor in the market place. It competes against both other Price Leader products and against Standard Leader products, which are the industry leading products.

Cisco's New Server Product

Cisco recently announced that it was entering the server market. Details are sketchy right now, but we might take a brief look at what Cisco needs to do to be successful. We will use the Customer Buying Hierarchy as our analytical tool.

The End of a Local Leader's Trap

A Leader’s Trap occurs when an industry leader, usually the first or second company ranked by market share, holds prices high in the face of declining industry prices. The industry leader expects that its customers will remain loyal despite lower cost competition. This decision is virtually certain to fail. Eventually, the industry leader will reduce its prices, but only after losing market share to the lower cost competitor. The North Lake Tahoe ski world is seeing the end of a Leader’s Trap. The world is about to get more interesting for skiers around this area.

Pricing in Highly Competitive Marketplaces

For the most part, the airline industry has been in overcapacity and hostile operating conditions since it was deregulated many years ago. During that time, the industry produced many pricing schemes and even more competitors. Over the last few years, the competitors have decreased, while the pricing schemes have burgeoned.

Function Innovation in a Service Industry

The advertising industry is suffering along with the rest of us. As marketers in all industries retrench and cut costs, advertising agencies are feeling a margin squeeze. They are looking around for new services that might distinguish them from their competitors and enable them to gain share in a declining market. Some of these new services are Function innovations. (See the Perspective, “How Customers Buy” on StrategyStreet.com.) A Function, in our terminology, refers to the characteristics of the product that affect the way it is used by the customers.

An Answer for Pizza Problems?

The pizza industry is struggling. It has been struggling for some time, well before the recession put its icy grip on the industry’s throat. The costs of pizza ingredients have caused the prices in the industry to rise. The industry has always had to struggle with its less-than-healthy reputation. So, for some time, the industry has been losing share to healthier and fresher competition on the one hand, and less pricey hamburger and sandwich competitors on the other.

The Flexibility of a Great Retailer

Many people in the United States have heard little of Tesco, but it is a great retailer. In fact, it is the fourth largest retailer in the world, following Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Home Depot.

GM's China Problem

GM has been a strong performer in the Chinese auto market. But their sales have hit a wall. In 2008, the Chinese automobile market was up 7%, but GM’s automobile sales were down 16%.

Creative Price Reductions to Gain Share

Not too many of us today would like to be in the retail clothing business. Fine retailers world-wide are suffering a dismal decrease in demand. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers has bucked the trend.

Slowing a Price Decline with a Low-Priced Product

For the last several years, most landline telephone companies have offered special discount deals to customers who threaten to cut their landline service. But the trickle of customers leaving landline service, and depending solely on cell phones, has turned into a stream.

Consolidation as Growth Slows

Recently, Vodapfone and Hutchison Whampoa announced that they will combine their Australian mobile telecommunications businesses into a joint venture. Currently, Vodapfone is the third ranked competitor in the Australian market, while Hutchison is the fourth. The combined subscribers of the new firm will still rank third in the market, but a relatively strong third.

Did Amazon Leave Money on the Table?

Recently, Amazon introduced Kindle2. This e-Book reader is thinner and faster than its predecessor, which itself is only about a year old. One thing the new Kindle2 is not is cheaper than its predecessor. It carries the same $359 price tag.

Reducing the Customer's Hassle Factor??

I’ve done it. I’m sure you have as well. In fact, virtually everyone has done it at one time or another. What is the “it”? You call for customer assistance or information and you get…India or the Philippines. Both India and the Philippines are fine countries. They both have much to admire. But their ability to speak English clearly to an American listener is, by most accounts, limited. They do speak English, though, and they ask for little in compensation in return. So, many companies have shifted their customer service, especially consumer customer service, offshore to these countries.

Price Increases at the Time of a Sales Decline

The world’s largest manufacturer of home appliances, Whirlpool Corporation, has seen a substantial decline in revenues and unit sales in the last few months. The company, as well as the rest of the industry, has responded with lay-offs and other overhead streamlining. And one other thing…a price increase. Despite the price increase, Whirlpool expects to gain market share in this troubled time for its industry.

A High End Retailer in a Leader's Trap

In a Leader’s Trap, an established industry competitor maintains a price umbrella and gives up market share to a discounting competitor. (See the Perspective, “The Leader’s Trap” on StrategyStreet.com.) The company in a Leader’s Trap believes that customers will stay loyal to the established company’s brand name by paying a premium for its product. Over time, the company in the Leader’s Trap not only loses share, but also sees its prices eventually fall to a level near the price established by the discounting competitor. Abercrombie & Fitch is now in a Leader’s Trap.

National Costs in a Global Economy

Dell Inc., the American computer manufacturer, is moving nearly half the jobs it has in Ireland to Poland. The move reduces Dell’s costs. It also sends a powerful message to the Irish and to other nations.

Layoffs, Expectations and the Economy

We are flirting with the highest levels of unemployment in a generation. Things feel bad and are bad. They could get a lot worse.

An Industry Leader Stumbles

For years, Chico’s FAS grew rapidly by selling attractively priced, colorful clothes, to baby-boomer women. But the company began to stumble in 2006. Its growth rate slowed and its core customers migrated to other companies’ offerings. The company’s costs rose faster than its revenues, squeezing margins.

Growth Rates That Count

No matter the rate of growth in a market, the key growth measures to watch are those of the various Price Points. Here is an example.

Pricing Taken Too Far

In the early 1990s, I was involved with a company that faced a very competitive price environment. The company felt it could not increase the prices on its standard product. Instead, it raised its prices on the ancillary services it offered to all customers, though not all customers used these services. The company felt, at the time, that it could continue to raise these prices until the market took note and complained bitterly, or until its prices notably exceeded those of its competitors.