Why Price Is Not a Competitive Advantage

Today I met with an entrepreneur who’s preparing to solicit investors. As we walked through his pitch deck, he detailed his advantages over competitors. One of them jumped out at me: lower price.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service or product that adds substantially more value than a competitor’s at a lower price. Companies that can do that are usually employing superior technology. But if your product or service is similar to your competitors’ and you’re differentiating yourself on price, you’re on a slippery slope.

Why? Customer loyalty. If the deciding factor for a customer is low cost, that probably won’t change. If a competitor undercuts your price, you will lose that customer. Bargain hunters don’t tend to be loyal to a brand. OK, you might ask, why not just find a new customer? Well, the number of customers is finite, so you want to keep the ones you have. Then there are customer acquisition costs. Marketing to snag a customer is expensive. The cost is justified when the customer will keep coming back over the long term (Amazon and Walmart are extreme examples) or when a one-time transaction has an extremely high profit margin. But when you spend a lot to acquire a customer who buys only once and your margins are low, you lost money on that relationship.

At CCAW, I learned early the importance of charging a fair price. We redid our pricing strategy in 2011. I was betting that consumers were moving away from a recession mindset and were open to paying full value. As predicted, we lost some customers. However, a foundation of healthier margins allowed us to bootstrap our growth from then on.

Venture capitalists can be reluctant to invest in a company where price is the competitive advantage. I encourage new entrepreneurs to be mindful of what kinds of customers are likely to be loyal.

What lessons have you learned about low prices?