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Is “Dynamic Pricing” actually restricting producers?

November 23, 2016

From a discussion about “Half A Sixpence” on theatreboard.co.uk, someone was saying that they wouldn’t see the show, simply due to ticket prices, and couldn’t understand why they were not cheaper in order to build an audience.

Aside from the fact a West End show is an expensive thing to stage (particularly on this scale, with a large cast and proportionately small theatre),  my reply was that producers are rather stuck with their options. As I saw it, they were simply,

1) Price the same as other shows – high to start, because you can always discount later (and bear in mind that just because your printed prices are high, you can “dynamic price” at any time. You can also sell to trade / groups etc at prices far below those the public know about.

2) Price low to start, go high if you have a hit. Problem is, you lose revenue in those vital first weeks, and risk a backlash when you return to normal pricing.

3) Price fair, and miss out on “discount hunters” in the marketplace. You only have your show to splash, not a “discount” to wave – whether it really is a discount or not.

4) Price high, hope to sell and hang on like grim death until you have to cut. If you do, you risk destroying your show’s reputation as it is seen as a failure that doesn’t sell.

My point was that producers can’t really win, these days.

In the past, the only people who knew which rows were at which prices were those who either had an obliging clerk on the phone, or could visit and see the colour-coded seating plan on the box office counter. Unless they “moved the rope” (re-priced seats nearest where the prices usually changed to a lower / higher price) the seat prices were fixed and nobody knew different – plus there was only the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to discount to.

Now, it’s all open online, and the public thinks it can see prices and seat locations instantly, and know how a show is selling. Not totally true – most theatres trickle seats to the online booking plans to sell, and seats are often kept off for groups / agents / management use etc. Still, I do wonder if dynamic pricing is actually killing shows in a whole new way, now, by offering chances to be too clever with the marketing of them – as my four alternative methods of pricing suggest.

Sure, “dynamic” maximises a hit (with the corollary of driving away regulars, as Mr Pugh of “The Girls” rightly notes) and potentially allows a quieter night to fill extra seats at lower prices. BUT it also leads to the situation the person on theatreboard moaned about, where prices seem to start particularly high, to allow for later movement, perhaps, but meantime blow the opportunity to sell to the less convinced at a reasonable price. A regular theatregoer knows the prices may change in their favour, but the casual buyer is repelled and will never come back to discover the alteration.

In fact, just as this blog was going to press, a reader emailed to say that she had decided not to see a show at her local theatre because “dynamic pricing” put second price tickets up to above the usual top price on the day she wanted to go – despite plenty of seats being available.

Worse, the vocal minority who love to issue gloomy warnings spot the empty seats, and are given fuel to talk a show into the ground, particularly when unsold tickets later do show up at lower prices.

There has to be something to be said for a return to the old methods. You knew the prices, knew the price structure would stay the same, and decided whether to buy or not without taking a chance things would get cheaper later on. Producers had the flexibility to increase prices or quietly drop the price of seats within a section, and there was a sense of trust between both them and their customers.

Maybe that’s the key. Rebuild that – as “The Girls” will with its lack of “premium seats” and fair prices throughout the house, and perhaps it’ll be a winning situation for producers whose shows run longer as the public begin to book ahead once again. Worth consdering, I think.

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