Can we talk about pricing?

February 25, 2010

At this year’s NRA Show, I will be giving an educational session on pricing, which will cover strategies for a successful pricing process, lessons learned during my tenure in restaurant pricing, and tips for anyone who has anything to do with managing pricing. But why limit the fun to NRA Show attendees? This blog is another forum where I’ll share some advice in hopes of helping any operators who would appreciate some guidance. The first lesson I’ll impart: my take on talking about pricing in the restaurant environment.

I have found that the issue of what we can talk about is one of the most uncomfortable for my restaurant colleagues, often resulting in a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil mindset. So I’ll share my experience with this in hopes of creating a comfort zone. The bottom line: you CAN talk about pricing, as long as you do it in a legal way. Is that clear as mud?

I have often heard my marketing, finance, and operations compatriots declare “we can’t talk about pricing” and change the subject. My usual response to this is “yes, we can talk about pricing, we just can’t price fix,” and then provide a bit of context. 

Every company should consult its legal team to develop and share (ad nauseum) a clear policy regarding the communication of pricing information. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on tv, so my layperson’s advice is just that. I repeat: consult your attorney after you read this.

Simply put, price fixing involves intentional or unintentional collusion among competitors that harms consumers and favors the colluding parties. The terms and behaviors that antitrust law covers can be ambiguous, especially in franchised environments, where franchisees can be viewed as competitors and could therefore be colluding without knowing it. There are also implications for the franchisor-franchisee dynamic. This is more clear-cut: franchisees, not franchisors, are responsible for making pricing decisions, so franchisors are limited to recommending prices to franchisees. It’s that simple: a franchisor dictating menu prices to a franchisee constitutes price-fixing. Company-owned restaurants therefore have it easier from a price recommendation/compliance standpoint, though they are not immune to potentially collusive situations. There are finer points about what’s allowable, such as whether or not franchisors can dictate maximum prices to franchisees. This is often covered in the actual contract between a franchisee and franchisor, and has arisen as a key point in the recent Burger King $1 Double Cheeseburger controversy, as Ron Ruggless has written in Nation’s Restaurant News.

Anyone who has dabbled in pricing knows that price fixing is illegal, and the way many companies have avoided breaking the law is by avoiding any discussion of price whatsoever, hence tactics such as having certain parties leave the room during pricing conversations so as not to participate (the corporate equivalent of covering one’s ears and singing).

Some examples of discussions that do not constitute price-fixing might help:

  • Making a price recommendation is not price fixing
  • Explaining the rationale behind price recommendations is not price fixing
    • Analyzing profit at a specific price point is part of the rationale
    • So are projecting sales and traffic
  • Evaluating a promotion in terms of how it impacted customer counts, sales, and guest perceptions is yet another type of analysis

It’s ironic that in an environment where the goal is a consistent customer experience, a discussion of consistency in pricing would be illegal. But we can’t change that, so we just work within the rules. If you believe that the franchisee is a key customer of the franchisor, it should follow that the franchisor should support its customer. This means providing business analysis, promotional programs, and training/tools, to franchisees. So don’t be afraid to talk about pricing, just understand exactly how to talk about it. This is perfectly appropriate – just ask your lawyer.

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One Response to “Can we talk about pricing?”


  1. […] preview of my upcoming talk at next month’s National Restaurant Association Show, where I’ll speak about restaurant pricing. I want to talk about my definition of pricing strategy because it’s crucial for restaurants – […]


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