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First spotting of “Dynamic Pricing”?

February 22, 2012

Actually, somebody on the Whatsonstage.com message board noticed that “Ghost” seats in row A of the upper circle, normally £45 each, were going for £67.50 at a recent weekend performance.

I took a look, and found that at “peak” performances (Valentine’s Day and the like), some interesting things were happening – just as theatre owner ATG said they would.

To be fair, the situation isn’t quite the scenario proposed when the idea was raised by them last autumn. It seems that, rather than starting with prices high then lowering them nearer the time, the opposite is happening. As the performance date draws near and demand is assessed, prices rise on some remaining seats. Those £45 upper circle tickets become £67.50, those rear stalls at £67.50 become “premium” seats at £85 each. The later bird must therefore pay more for an inferior worm.

Presumably, though I’ve not yet tested this, prices will plunge again to more sensible levels in the last few hours before show time.

The thing to remember is that about two-thirds of all theatre bookings across all shows are made within 30 days of the performance, and almost a fifth on the day itself. Just taking “Ghost” as an example; if you look ahead around a month, tickets are being sold at the prices originally announced – no change there. It’s those two-thirds who could be caught… and my question is now about the effect it’s going to have in the medium term.

Less than 10% of theatregoers book more than a month ahead, and I’d pretty much assume that they are mostly regulars, far-sighted tourists or those seeking entry to a bigger hit like “War Horse.” On Broadway, when hits like “Book of Mormon” are spotted, prices in entire sections of the theatre – the whole orchestra stalls for example – are raised to “premium” levels. Londont heatres using “dynamic pricing” could move as quickly… but I wonder how many regular theatregoers would simply wait to see if prices fall or offers emerge. “Advance Box Office” and the interest accumulating on that money could well be lost.

The 30-day brigade are going to be hardest hit. Imagine if you bought a terrible seat for £95 not from a tout / scalper… but from the theatre itself – who know full well the ‘proper’ price is only £67.50. PR disaster triggered by greed for sure.

Just this week, a Theatremonkey.com reader was upset that his second price ticket for a show had a poor view. In the West End, ticket prices are traditionally set proportional to view – and the show he saw has a massive gap between top and second price for a good reason. Nobody had explained that to him until I did, and it all made sense to him once I did.

Imagine if that ‘safety valve’ is removed… I for one wouldn’t hesitate to take legal action under existing legislation if I were sold a full price seat with a restricted view. It’s illegal… and “dynamic pricing” could lead somebody into a lot of trouble on that count alone.

More to the point, as the day draws nearer – say a week or so ahead – and all the even half decent seats are far more expensive… is anybody going to buy them anyway? My guess is a few, but far fewer than would willingly pay the normal price – especially at times when there are fewer tourists (who must see the show there and then or miss it forever) are around.

Theatre is an expensive product to produce, and to consume. The internet has produced an amazing system for discounting, and cuts costs for box offices as reservation handling migrates to computers rather than needing actual people. There is a limited case for charging more for a few prime seats at the last moment, perhaps, but surely in the interests of a mass audience there’s a much stronger one for fairness in pricing, and to remember that we are customers with choices and options… including NOT to buy…

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Oh, and finally, great news for my old friend / foreword writer for the Theatremonkey book / fellow “dynamic pricing” protester / leader of the Critic’s Circle… MrMark Shenton is finally tying the knot with his long-term partner Mark. Congratulations to them both.

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