Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Monetizing the Male Ego

Every marketer has to decide how much product to sell and at what price. Few are as fortunate as condom makers, whose customers are glad to pay a premium for a product that isn't much bigger or better. Consider the Magnum line of plus-size condoms, a sub-brand of industry leader Trojan. Magnum's share of the market has surged (if you'll excuse the expression) from 4.6 percent of the market in 2001 to 18.8 percent today. The size of the American male has not seen a similar increase.
"Bigger than most condoms, it is designed to fit those that find normal condoms too constricting," reads one website's copy for Magnum. It closes on the tantalizing note: "These are a little smaller in Width and length than the Magnum XL's."
Oh, yes, then there are Magnum XL's. The copy tries to upsell the Trojan customer to Magnum, and the Magnum customer to XL. It's easy to see why men fall for this particular sales pitch. It's also easy to see why Trojan loves Magnums. A box of 12 regular Trojans retails for around $5.99; a box of Magnums is $7.99. That's a 33 percent premium. Then there's Magnum Ecstasy, at $10.99 for a box that contains only 10. I doubt that anyone buying a product called "Magnum Ecstasy" does the math, but that's over twice the unit price of the regular Trojans.
Were these gloves instead of love gloves, "small," "medium," and "large" would retail for the same price. So the Magnum premium is pure profit. Furthermore, Trojan has never advertised Magnums. It doesn't have to.
What's not so obvious is the smoke and mirrors behind the Magnum brand. Jim Daniels, vice-president of marketing for Trojan, confessed to the New York Times that Magnums are basically the same size, just a little wider in the middle.
The regular Trojan, the Magnum, and the Magnum XL all measure 2 inches wide at the base. The base has to cinch snugly to keep the thing on. There's a slight difference in length. A Trojan Non-Lubricated is 7.8 inches long, vs. 8.12 inches for Magnum. The 0.32-inch difference qualifies as a rounding error in anyone's night of pleasure. As to the Magnum XLs, well, they're 8.12 inches long, too.
The difference is in width of the shaft. Measured at the head, Trojans are 2 inches wide, Magnums are 2.5 inches, and Magnum XL's are 2.75 inches. Well okay, that's a difference. But since all the condoms taper to 2 inches at the base, the Magnums have a rather bizarre shape. It's less a beer can than a very fashionable cocktail shaker of the 1930s.
A rival brand, LifeStyles, has a "King XL" size whose vital statistics are virtually the same as the regular Trojans. There's no policing of the XL designation. And that's probably fine with all parties concerned. This is America, the land where any man can be an XL. All it takes is a little extra cash.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pricing the eBook

The iPad's release has renewed the question, what should an eBook cost? Answers range from “free” to “whatever the market will bear.” Psychologists would say the operative word is “whatever.” At issue is the phenomenon of “anchoring,” discovered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. When people don’t know what a fundamentally new product should cost, they are strongly influenced by the first price they encounter. It’s like the way a baby chick decides that whatever creature it sees first is its mother.
For Kindle readers, that all-important first price is likely to be the $9.99 price that Amazon pioneered. Publishers fear those readers will thereafter take that as the “fair” price for eBooks and resist any attempt to charge more. What’s wrong with that? Well, Amazon is using another, more familiar pricing trick, the loss leader. It’s been reported that Amazon is losing money on each eBook sale, as it’s paying publishers more than $9.99. This tactic is probably a smart way to promote sales of the Kindle and to burnish Amazon’s reputation for low prices.
Apple's new iPad Bookstore allows publishers to set prices. Contrary to early speculation, Apple is selling many bestsellers for the "Amazon" price of $9.99. Otherwise $12.99 is a common price point at the iPad Bookstore. Meanwhile, Amazon has quietly raised prices for many eBooks — often inscrutably — as a result of new agreements with publishers. (My book Priceless originally sold for $9.99 in a Kindle edition. Amazon raised the price to $14.99, then cut it to $12.99. That's three prices in the two weeks it's been out. By the way, don't blame me: Authors have nothing to do with setting prices.)
The net effect of the iPad so far: There's a wider range of eBook prices and less price difference between Apple and Amazon than the pundits predicted.
We would like to believe that the free market, and not corporate posturing, sets equitable prices. On closer inspection, the “market” price of a book has always been a chimera. Should Don Delillo’s Point Omega cost less because it’s only 128 pages? Should Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books cost more because some of her fans would pay almost anything? For the most part, the publishing industry says no. In defiance of economics, there is only a limited attempt to price by wordage or reader demand. This is another demonstration of how peculiar a business book publishing is.
Any discussion of eBook pricing now has three psychological anchors. They are the current price of hardcover books (let’s say around $27), the once-standard Amazon Kindle price ($9.99), and the “information wants to be free” price of zero. All agree that the price of an eBook should be a good deal less than the price of a hardcover. There are no trees to cut down, and no boxes to ship. Everyone in the book business also agrees that the price of a new book must be a good deal more than zero. (We may or may not be heading towards an age of free information, but there will be no publishers, booksellers, or professional authors in that digital nirvana.) A reasonable person might ask, what does it cost to produce and market an eBook? But that's like asking what does it cost to make a movie. The answer can be zero (YouTube) or $500 million (Avatar).
The biggest unknown of all is what the consumer will pay. I remember a time in my twenties when I realized, with delight, that I could afford to buy all the books I could read. I imagine I’m not atypical of avid readers in saying that I wouldn’t read any more books if they were all free, and I wouldn’t read much less if they cost twice as much. An economist would argue that most of the “cost” of a book resides in the precious leisure time expended reading it. Figure how many hours you spend reading a book and multiply by your billing rate. It’s going to be a lot more than $12.99. We’re dickering over the tip, not the restaurant bill.
But most people don’t think like economists. The value of one’s own time is not so easily quantified as a price printed on a jacket. That price carries disproportionate weight in purchase decisions, and people can get upset over the most incremental increase (“it’s the principle of the thing!”) Confirming the anchoring theory, it’s reported that some readers are upset at Apple for trying to raise prices above the God-, or Amazon-given $9.99.
Psychologists say that prices have an element of confabulation. We spin a mental narrative in which the prices we set are exact, rigorous, and inevitable —oblivious to how arbitrary those prices actually are. I suspect that everyone involved in the eBook price war would be just as upset, had the line in the sand been drawn at $4.99 or $19.99. I don’t know what eBook prices we’ll end up with, but I’m reasonably sure of one thing: If we think there’s an entirely logical price for a digital book, we’re only fooling ourselves.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Loser’s Curse

Richard Thaler has an article in today's New York Times on mispricing of NFL talent. In the NFL draft, losing teams trade away too much for "first pick" players, Thaler and Cade Massey argue in a recently updated paper.

"We found that the teams choosing early in the draft generally don’t, in fact, get the players that provide the most value per dollar. Our paper is titled “The Loser’s Curse” because we discovered that the first pick in the draft is, on average, the least valuable in the entire first round."
That surprising result has implications not only for football, but also for any domain where organizations try to select talent, whether C.E.O.’s or their own “rookies” — newly minted graduates."

In related news, the Times has an amusing graphic comparing some star CEOs' compensation to their companies' performance.