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Q. One of the most difficult decisions I face is how to price my product. I’m afraid if I price too high, I’ll lose business, but if I price to low, I won’t make any money. Can you help me think about pricing?

A. Pricing your product or service is one of the most important decisions you will make in business and as you point out in your question, it can be tricky. However, paying attention to the five items below will help you navigate these treacherous waters more smoothly.

1. Perceived value of your offering – What does your customer base perceive to be the value of your offering? This will establish the maximum price you can charge because a rational person will not pay more for something than the value he/she perceives.

It is perceived value that matters, not actual value. If the actual value of your offering exceeds perceived value, you may be able to change perception with a well-crafted marketing communication program. However, until perception is changed, what you can charge will be capped by current perception.

2. Competitor’s prices – If you’re selling a commodity (e.g., gas at two stations next door to each other) you won’t be able to charge meaningfully more than the competition. In this example, a difference in price of only a few pennies per gallon would shift significant volume.

If your product or service is differentiated from the competition in a way that is desirable to at least some portion of the market, you may be able to charge a premium vis-à-vis your competitors. One reason that companies spend so much on marketing is to make sure that customers understand the things that differentiate their offering. This will enable them to price much closer to full value.

3. Cost structure – Focus first on variable costs. These are costs that go up as revenue increases (e.g., raw material, direct labor). Except in the case of lost leaders, the variable cost sets the floor for price. If you price below variable cost, you will lose money on every unit sold and you can’t make that up in volume. Price minus variable cost is variable contribution (i.e., the amount of money you make on each unit you sell).

Next, focus on fixed costs. These costs remain constant as revenue grows (e.g., rent, utilities, overhead such as accounting). Admittedly, all costs are variable with a large enough increase in revenue, but we’re talking about more modest changes. Fixed cost divided by variable contribution equals the number of units you have to sell to reach breakeven (if you run a service business, think of units sold as hours billed).

4. Profit targets – Add your profit requirements to fixed costs and divide variable contribution to calculate the number of units you need to sell to achieve your profit objective. If it is reasonable to believe that you can achieve this number of units at the price you are planning to charge, great. If not, you may need to adjust your price either up or down.

Profit = [Unit Volume X (Price – Variable Cost)] – Fixed Cost

Economic theory says that as price goes up, volume will decrease. Over time, you can make adjustments to price and observe the impact on profit. If you lower price a bit, does volume go up enough to result in a profit increase? Alternatively, if you raise price, can you maintain enough volume to increase profit?

5. Competitive response – Remember, you don’t make pricing decisions in a vacuum. Competitors will respond. So, reducing price may drive increased profit for a short time. However, if competitors match your price reduction, the result may be reduced profit for the entire industry. When making pricing decisions, be sure to factor in what you think your competitors will do.

Pricing your product or service can be tricky, but paying attention to these important factors can make the difference between a profit and a loss.

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