According to The Stage, there’s a new league table in town, and theatres seem to be clammering to be at the top of it.
Yes, this is The Stage’s new annual ticketing survey, which declares ‘The Book of Mormon’ winner of the greediest purveyors of greed award (as we like to call it). Strangely, the ticket price is set at a very precise £202.25. As though someone is trying to win a sealed bid. But why would anybody want to advertise their intention to rip customers off so shamelessly? Maybe price-referencing has something to do with it. This is the practice of deliberately over-pricing certain products in a range in order to make the others look cheaper. A quick look at the seating plan for the stalls starts to look like a supermarket shelf. Firstly, only a tiny number of seats are priced over £200. But now, there is a whole range of price points within the ‘premium range’ (Taste the difference anyone?), leaving a ‘top price’ ticket of £77.25 which covers most of the auditorium on the more popular nights. The position of the seats cannot justify the price differential, but once you’ve got a figure of £200 in your head, everything else suddenly seems cheap. It’s not a rational process. Nobody in their right mind would look at the seating plan, see a £150 ticket next to a £200 one, and think, I’ll get the expensive one because clearly I’m going to get another 33% of enjoyment by sitting one foot nearer the centre of the row. In fact, some of the cheaper seats are nearer the stage. ‘Demand’ is the constantly repeated mantra, but actually this is more about price sensitivity. Just as Starbucks have invented a great way to take money from customers who don’t care about the price-tag with the invention of overpriced marshmallow toppings on drinks, theatres are getting in on the act. Three years ago we made this point and predicted that once producers have identified a group of price-insensitive customers, the sky’s the limit, and it seems we have been proved right so far, with every sign that the trend will continue.
The next task is to convince audiences that it is virtually impossible to get tickets most of the time. So for example, we have Chief executive of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers Jonathan Brown claiming that ‘the premium price category allows late access to good seats for high-selling shows [and] in many ways follows a similar pricing model to plane and train travel’. So what he seems to be saying is theatres are thoughtfully pricing poor people out of the market so that there are always a few tickets left for rich people. But having monitored last-minute availability for a show like The Book of Mormon over a few days, we have yet to see a sold-out show. Yet on the official website is an invitation to join a special exclusive ‘priority list’ to be contacted about returns. ‘Can’t wait to see the Book of Mormon? Join our priority SMS returns queue’ it proclaims. Or, we suggest, wait one or two days and book an available ticket on the website. Again, it is totally irrational to wait for a return when you could just book ahead. But if you can induce some kind of group panic about scarcity, and then offer a form of ‘rescue’, the product will be valued all the higher. It’s the kind of trick hotel booking sites use with their ‘helpful’ warnings that the room you are looking at is about to be sold out. That constant state of ‘nearly’ missing out is the holy grail of the marketing people – and have you noticed how miraculously there always seems to be something available?
Proponents of dynamic pricing are keen to point out that tickets can get cheaper too, but again, the full story is not being told. Just as the ‘premium price’ and top price tickets creep over ever larger areas of the auditorium (we actually saw a premium price restricted view ticket for one show), the seats at the cheapest prices really are the worst seats in the house – there is very little chance of grabbing a slight less worse seat by booking early, as we used to recommend. And the differential between the bottom and next price up is, again, completely out of kilter with reality. This is the ‘basics’ range, it’s not there to give anyone a bargain, it’s a way of clearly identifying the least desirable product. Surely the prize for disingenuity, though, must go to another glorious quote from Jonathan Brown, who comments that the 33% price hikes at the top end ‘go some way to making these lower prices commercially viable’. And the lower prices he is referring to? A drop from an average of £20.36 to £20.13 – that’s just over 1%. All we’re saying is, don’t let him anywhere near your financial affairs as he clearly struggles to work out just where all that extra money is going. No wonder ‘The Stage’ also seems to have stopped commenting too loudly on the disparity between profits and audience figures. Perhaps it is just too embarrassing to have to admit that the gap is widening, with a report from February 2015 quoting revenues increasing by 6% while audience figures remain static, which belies claims of dynamic pricing responding to ‘demand’. Demand is not growing, yet prices are rising. Isn’t that what economists call a ‘broken market’?
We are also getting quite tired of hearing about the analogies between theatres and airlines, because one important point is always ignored by most commentators. Steve Rich of Theatremonkey has already eloquently explained the point, but it bears repeating. Let’s take Easyjet as an example. You can actually go to their website and have it explained to you in words of one syllable: if you want a cheap seat, book early. That’s all you have to do. And they will even give you a voucher if the price goes down instead of up. They tap into the primal human urge to get a bargain without denting their profits by giving customers a genuinely fair chance and giving them fair warning that prices will go up if they leave it too long. Compare that with the West End theatres. The pricing might be complicated, but the message is clear – theatre is now for the rich, and we should be grateful for any crumbs that fall off the table. Even Juliet Stevenson baulks at the price of tickets now. The vast corporations that now control the West End seem to have decided that theatre is a cash cow to be milked. We don’t expect supermarkets to nurture a love of food, so why should we expect corporations that own theatres to nurture a love of theatre?