Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2336277
Using ‘Smart’ Pricing to Increase Profits and Maximize Customer
Anindya Bhattacharya, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Marketing and International Business
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business
Finance and Business Management Department
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Originally Published in the National Public Accountant and reprinted in SSRN with the kind
permission of the National Society of Accountants (NSA).
Bhattacharya, A. (deceased) and Friedman, H. H. (2001). Using 'Smart' Pricing to Increase
Profits and Maximize Customer Satisfaction. Na tional Publ ic Acc oun tant , Vol. 46:6,
August 2001, 34 -38.
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2336277
A small change in prices can have a significant impact on profits and it is therefore becoming crucial
for firms to use innovative approaches to pricing. Smart pricing is a dynamic approach to pricing that
requires that firms have accurate information about market demand and profit margins on each item
sold. Smart prices take into account differences in the costs of serving different segments and also the
different valuations of one’s product by different segments. Firms that use smart pricing will not use a
fixed price but will adjust prices, even on a daily basis, as market conditions, consumer demand, and
product valuations change. Smart pricing is becoming extremely crucial for firms that wish to survive
in the age of the Internet and globalization. Today’s customers use the Internet not only to make price
comparisons but also to determine the seller’s actual costs.
Keywords: smart pricing, segmentation, peak-user pricing, enhanced warranty pricing, dynamic
Selecting the right price for a product or service is both an art and a science. It is a major
decision and can have a significant impact on the bottom line. McKinsey & Co., in a study of 1,000
firms, found that a 1% increase in price – with constant sales – resulted in an average increase in
profitability of 7.4%. The McKinsey study also showed that the effect of pricing on profitability was
even stronger than that of increasing sales volume or reducing costs (Anthes, 1998). An
understanding of the fixed and variable costs associated with a product is critical in selecting an
optimal price. However, pricing should not only reflect costs but also take into consideration the value
customers place on the product or service.
Steadman (2000) proposes that firms use value-based pricing rather than determine prices by
considering only what the product costs to produce. By using value-based pricing, firms determine
how much a product or service is actually worth to the customer. This information is then used to set
a price that is neither too low nor too high, but based on the benefit the customer receives. It is
important, however, for a firm that uses value pricing to promote the fact that its product does indeed
offer benefits that others do not. The perceived value of the product must be enhanced and promoted
if a firm desires to set a higher price consistent with the extra quality. A recent survey cited by
Steadman found that at most 10% of firms use value-based pricing.
Shapiro and Varian (1998) note that since the marginal cost of information (e.g., software) is
extremely low, traditional approaches to selling will not work on the Web. Pricing approaches such as
matching the competition or cost-based pricing are recipes for disaster. They recommend that firms
that sell information on the Web “set prices according to the value a customer places on the
Smart pricing is a value-based strategy requiring that firms have accurate information about
market demand and profit margins on each item sold. Smart pricing is dynamic pricing and means
that a firm will not use a fixed price but will adjust prices, even on a daily basis, as market conditions,
consumer demand, and product valuations change. Smart prices take into account differences in the
costs of serving different segments and also the different valuations of one’s product by different
segments. After all, it is highly unlikely that all customers value a product/service exactly the same
way. Airlines are the ultimate users of smart pricing. Two hundred people might be on the same
flight and each individual might have paid a different fare. Airlines, in order to ensure maximum
profits, adjust prices constantly and take into account such things as the sensitivity of business and
non-business travelers to price, fares of the competition, and booking activities. This explains why,
for example, United Airlines made 10 million fare changes in one year (Anthes, 1998).
The market share for Ford Motors declined from 1995 to 1999, but its profits rose. This was
accomplished by changing the firm’s philosophy, focusing less on the quantity of automobiles sold
and more on selling automobiles with high profit margins. Selling one car with a $5,000 profit margin
makes more sense than selling three cars with margins of only $1,000 each. Profit margins can be
improved by providing desired product features. To accomplish this, Ford has been using marketing
research to determine the features that customers are willing to pay for and that the industry has been
slow in providing (Business Week, 2000).
Smart pricing is becoming extremely crucial for firms as consumers use the Internet not only
to make price comparisons but also to determine the seller’s actual costs. The Internet provides
consumers with a huge quantity of easily accessible information, much of which is available at no
cost. Today, consumers enter automobile dealerships armed with downloaded printouts detailing the
dealer’s cost. This problem, referred to as cost transparency, makes it very difficult for sellers to
obtain high profit margins (Sinha, 2000).
Businesses too can search the entire world to find the best price for a raw material or
component. The days of consumers and businesses paying full prices may be coming to an end. In
fact, much business-to-business (B2B) trading is being conducted via Internet exchanges. These
electronic exchanges are online marketplaces where buyers and sellers “meet” to buy, sell, and/or
exchange goods and services. The appearance of an electronic exchange in one’s industry can totally
change the way companies price products.
Web-based business-to-business firms such as Freemarkets (http://freemarkets.com) have sold
billions of dollars of surplus inventory, commodities, and services using reverse auctions. With a
reverse auction, the buyer posts an RFQ (request for quotes) for the item that is to be purchased.
Buyers then receive offers via the Internet from many sellers. Freemarkets claims that buyers using
their site have realized savings of between 2% and 25%. Reverse auctions in the B2B market work
particularly well for standard commodities where quality or service is not a major consideration in the
Sinha (2000) claims that some ways of dealing with the problems of cost transparency are
smart pricing and bundling the product with other products and services. These approaches make it
more difficult for customers to determine the true price of the basic product. In other words, it is
important to make sure that the product or service you sell is not perceived as a “commodity,” i.e.,
essentially the same as that sold by numerous other competing firms. The Internet will most likely
reduce prices for standard commodities, but not for products that are perceived as being different and
of providing a great deal of value to a particular target market.
Different Approaches to Smart Pricing
The approaches to smart pricing that follow are ways firms can sell their products or services
at two or more prices. The different prices will not necessarily be based on differences in cost.
Products, of course, have to be priced in a way so that customers feel that they are receiving great
value for their money.
Premium Product Pricing
Suppose a firm sells a basic computer for $1500. It might do some research and find that
customers would find certain added features extremely desirable and useful. These additional features
might only cost the firm an additional $200, but it might very well be able to sell the premium model
for $2500. The addition of features that only cost $200 might enable the firm to charge an extra
$1,000. This is not unlike what automobile makers do when pricing the luxury cars. The price
difference between, say, a Cadillac and an Oldsmobile, reflects much more than the cost difference.
The same can be said for the difference in price between first class and coach seats in an airline or the
difference between a high-quality wine or scotch and a regular brand. Hotels offer fancy suites at
much higher prices than “standard” rooms. Customers decide what level of quality they desire in a
hotel room. Shapiro and Varian (1998) also recommend that firms produce different versions of the
same information product (e.g., software) in order to increase profits. They refer to their system as
In some states, consumers are given a choice of two types of electricity: (1) electricity
generated from polluting fossil fuels and nuclear energy or (2) Green-e. Green-e, i.e., green electricity
is mainly generated from renewable resources such as sun, water, wind, and geothermal and is
environmentally friendly. Green-e is more expensive than regular electricity but a significant number
of consumers are willing to pay the premium since they are aware of the benefits and value to society
of using electricity from sources that do not harm the environment (see http://www.green-e.org/ for
more information about green-e). Green power is now available in most of Connecticut for about $5
to $6 more per month than regular electricity.
It should be noted that the profit margins on premium products are almost always significantly
higher than on the no-frills version. Consider that a cup of Starbuck’s coffee costs three to four times
as much as a cup of coffee at a diner and much, much more than a cup you brew for yourself. Does
the Starbuck’s coffee actually taste three times as good? What is the profit margin on a cup of
Starbuck’s coffee, a product that is essentially 98% water? The way to improve profits is to offer
customers who demand the extra quality this option but at a significantly higher price.
A bookseller could use this approach to improve profits. Suppose an order comes in for a book
selling for $10. The order taker can offer a special leather-bound, monogrammed edition for $18. Of
course, the cost of the additional features is only $3. Charging an additional $8 for something that
costs only $3 can help dramatically improve profits. Enhancing the product or service by offering
additional features is an easy way to improve profits and increase customer satisfaction. In industries
where products are becoming commodities and are all perceived as being very much alike, the
addition of interesting features and/or exemplary service can make one brand stand out.
Most consumers would agree that eggs are a standard commodity and it is therefore hard to
charge more for a particular brand of eggs. Interestingly, some specialized brands of eggs – omega-3
enriched eggs and organic eggs – cost more than three times as much as other brands. These eggs
appeal to specific target markets, are perceived as being unique and providing great value, and
therefore command much higher prices. The Web may lower prices for commodities, but could
actually raise prices for unique products that are perceived as providing value and that are targeted to
specific market segments.
Prime Location Pricing
Virtually no theater or stadium charges one price for all seats. Since customers are willing to
pay more for seats at a better location, e.g., orchestra seats, theater owners charge more for these seats.
In fact, uniform pricing would result in lower profits than a dynamic pricing approach. Greco (1997)
describes how one opera company studied demand patterns for different types of seats, and discovered
that it was almost always turning customers away for Friday and Saturday night performances,
especially for the best seats. Meanwhile, midweek seats went unsold. Management checked the
quality of every single seat in terms of view and acoustics and went from five different prices to nine
prices. The price of certain seats were raised by as much as 50%. These changes resulted in a 9%
increase in revenues.
Enhanced Warranty Pricing
Improving the length of a warranty can result in additional profits for a firm and can also
increase customer satisfaction. Suppose the standard warranty for a heavy-duty laser printer is 2 years
and the firm’s research indicates that only 3% of printers will fail between year 2 and year 7. If the
cost of replacing the printer is $5,000, then the expected value of the cost of an additional five years of
warranty is $150 ($5,000 times .03). If the firm offers an extended warranty for five additional years
for a price of $100 per year, it can expect to make a profit of $350 per warranty sold. Indeed, the
profit margin on the extended warranty may be higher than on the printer. Charging a total of $500 for
something that costs the company $150 produces a very healthy profit. Moreover, it allows customers
high in perceived risk an option for lowering their risk by providing them an optional long-term
warranty and thereby increase their satisfaction.
Priority Service Pricing
The same idea could be used with regard to speed of service. Not all individuals feel the same
way about having to wait for a service. In fact, some customers might be willing to pay more for
faster service than others. These individuals might simply be impatient and hate waiting for anything
or the opportunity cost of their time may be high. For instance, a computer consultant who earns $500
per hour as a troubleshooter might be willing to pay considerably more than a retiree for priority
service that means not having to wait in a queue. Organizations that charge customers for the
privilege of immediate service can increase their earnings while at the same time improving customer
satisfaction. Time is an extremely valuable commodity to customers and they are often willing to pay
to save time.
Some computer companies provide two different technical support help lines for customers:
one help line is free but may require a long wait for a technician; another help line provides almost
immediate access to technical support for a fee. A company whose computer system has crashed is
more willing to pay for super-fast service than an individual consumer whose system has crashed. The
cost to the company might be in the millions of dollars so it would certainly be willing to pay for
immediate service. Uniform pricing would not make sense for a computer repair firm and it should
have a two-price system, one price for super-fast service and a lower price for normal service. Federal
Express built an incredibly successful business by offering overnight delivery of packages. Customers
can either drop off their packages or have their package picked up by Federal Express for a slightly
Friedman and Lewis (1999) discuss the advantages of charging peak users more and off-peak
users less. This approach to pricing not only helps flatten the peaks, but also may decrease a firm’s
costs by reducing the need for extra equipment. Satisfying the peaks often means that a great deal of
equipment (e.g., extra buses for rush hours) is needed to satisfy peak demand. Airlines charge lower
fares to various destinations during slow periods (e.g., Florida during the summer) and charge
considerably more during peak vacation periods (e.g., Florida during the winter). Similarly, many
transportation companies charge higher fares for rides during rush hours and lower fares during non-
rush hours; cellular phone users often pay less for telephone service during off-peak periods. Some
restaurants offer special reduced prices for patrons willing to eat dinner early before the peak periods.
A system of charging peak users more and off-peak users less can increase a firm’s profits and result
in more efficient use of resources.
Several utilities are finding that satisfying demand for electricity during peak demand periods
can be extremely costly. The cost of generating electricity during regular demand periods is usually
about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour and rarely higher than 12 cents. Since electricity is sold to customers
at prices of about 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, utilities can expect to make a reasonable profit. The
price of electricity in the unregulated open market during peak demand periods, however, can be as
high as $6 per kilowatt-hour. This is due to the fact that the cost is bid up by numerous utilities trying
to purchase the limited quantity of electricity available for sale. This can have a serious impact on
profits. Some utilities are trying to solve the problem by paying customers – especially large
manufacturers that use a great deal of electricity – to shut down for short periods during heavy demand
periods. Some utilities are installing radio-controlled switches which allow the utilities to turn off
their customers’ central air conditioners and swimming pool pumps. Customers are paid for providing
the utility with the ability to shut off their air conditioners during peak periods. Some utilities pay
customers to allow them to install devices that enables them to raise the thermostat settings (Wald,
All of the above methods are alternatives to the ideal method which would involve the
installation of special meters in customers’ homes and businesses that allow the implementation of
time-of-day pricing. These relatively expensive meters not only record how much electricity is being
used but also when it is being used. A system of pricing electricity according to time of day and
season makes more sense than a one-price policy since the cost of electricity does indeed fluctuate
from hour to hour. If consumers were aware that the cost of electricity between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
during the summer was 50% higher than during other time periods, many would avoid using their air
conditioners and vacuum cleaners during that time. Time-of-day pricing may not be practical yet for
small residential homes, but is certainly reasonable for large firms.
Drastic solutions may be necessary since several states are on the verge of breakdowns in their
power supply and blackouts have occurred. The reserve power margin for California has dropped
below 5% several times. This caused the state to call a stage 2 alert and power was cut to big
customers who signed prior agreements to allow this in exchange for lower rates (Berenson 2000).
This strategy was not entirely successful and California had to employ rolling blackouts. California’s
electricity crisis is spreading and the price of electricity has skyrocketed all over the United States.
With certain products and services, a firm might note that not all customers have the same
sensitivity towards price (what economists refer to as price elasticity of demand). Business travelers,
for instance, are usually less sensitive to the price of the airline ticket than vacationers. For instance, a
business traveler who needs to get to Rome to consummate a deal worth several million dollars will
not be concerned as to whether the ticket costs $400 or $900. A vacationing couple, on the other hand,
might go elsewhere on vacation if the ticket is too expensive. This is why airlines charge considerably
more for a ticket if one wishes to leave and return during the week (something mainly done by
business travelers) than if one plans to stay over a weekend.
Senior citizens and students are also usually quite sensitive to prices and are offered discounts
to movies and theaters. Some universities offer senior citizens discounts on tuition for courses. Of
course, the senior citizens (typically non-degree students) register last and the only courses available to
them are the ones that have available seats. Degree-candidate students are less sensitive to prices than
senior citizens because a college degree means substantially higher lifetime earnings. Senior citizens,
on the other hand, are retired or near retirement and are quite sensitive to price and may therefore not
register for courses if they have to pay the full tuition.
A tie store that only sells forty-dollar ties might only reach one market segment. Mainly
wealthy individuals and customers considering the ties as a gift will purchase the $40 ties. To reach
several customer segments it might be more logical to sell ties at various prices, say, $3, $10, and $40.
Software companies that sell inexpensive student versions of their products are also making use of this
pricing approach. The student market is much more sensitive to price and cannot afford to pay several
hundred dollars for computer software.
Krugman (2000) notes that electronic commerce makes it very easy to use “dynamic” pricing
and charge each customer a unique price based on his or her price sensitivity. Using data-mining and
analysis software, electronic retailers such as Amazon.com can amass a great deal of information
about their customers. When a customer enters the Amazon.com Web site, the company not only
knows about past purchases and the kind of music and books this individual likes, it can just as easily
determine what is the maximum price the customer would be willing to pay for a certain product. This
is much more sophisticated than the current system of price segmentation used in the book-publishing
business today in which books are first sold as hardcover for a high price. After those that are willing
to pay the high price of the hardcover editions have been milked, books are sold as paperbacks at a
much lower price. The much lower price of the paperback is only partially due to the lower cost of
publishing a paperback and is mainly due to the different price sensitivities of the two segments.
This article demonstrates how price can be used as a tool to increase both profits and customer
satisfaction. More importantly, it demonstrates that a one-price policy and/or cost-based prices may
not always be the optimal way to price products and services, especially in these days of transparent
costs. Of course, firms that desire to use a multiple pricing approach must be careful not to confuse
their customers. A uniform price is less likely to bewilder customers than a differential pricing
approach. In addition, firms must not employ multiple prices if it will cause resentment among
customers. You do not want customers to feel that they have been cheated. Increasing profits may be
an important goal but not if it comes at the expense of customer satisfaction.
Anthes, Gary H. (1998), “The Price had Better be Right,” Computerworld, v. 32, December 21, pp.
Berenson, Alex (2000), “California on Edge of Failing to Meet Electricity Needs,” The New York
Times, pp. A1, A22.
Business Week (2000), “The Power of Smart Pricing,” Business Week, April 10, 2000, pp. 160-164.
Friedman, Hershey H. and Barbara Jo Lewis (1999), “Dynamic Pricing Strategies for Maximizing
Customer Satisfaction,” National Public Accountant, 44(1), pp. 8-36.
Greco, Susan (1997), “Are Your Prices Right?” Inc., January 1, 1997, pp. 88-89.
Krugman, Paul (2000), “Reckonings: What Price Fairness?” The New York Times, p. A23.
Shapiro, Carl and H. R. Varian (1998), “Versioning: The Smart Way to Sell Information,” Harvard
Business Review, 76(6), pp. 106-114.
Sinha, Indrajit (2000), “Cost Transparency: The Net’s Real Threat to Prices and Brands,” Harvard
Business Review, v. 78(2), pp. 43-54.
Steadman, Craig (2000), “Value-based Pricing,” Computerworld, v. 34(11), pp. 58-59.
Wald, Matthew L. (2000), “Utilities Trying New Approaches to Pricing Energy,” The New York
Times, pp. A1, A16.