Analyses - July 20, 2004



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July 2004


Print Management,

The “low-cost” concept: is it for you?

There is nothing new in the observation that price is a deciding factor, or even the deciding factor, in consumer behaviour. What is new is that the economic model associated with low prices is becoming more and more popular. Companies adopting this model make it their mission to offer high-calibre, no-frills products that are in no way synonymous with poor quality. For examples, one has only to look at the soaring popularity of low-cost carriers in the airline industry.

A thousand and one reasons to cut prices

It is only normal that customers want to get the most for the least amount of money. There are many reasons to cut prices:

  • promotions to publicize a new product;
  • deals to attract new customers;
  • lower prices to beat the competition ;
  • special group rates;
  • “early-bird” specials;
  • last-minute prices to liquidate stock;
  • off-season prices;
  • guaranteed best rates to lure reservations away from middlemen.

And yet, at the end of the day, such measures cut into the profit margin.

The low-cost concept is in no way synonymous with cheap

Working from the idea that people are looking for low prices, a number of businesses have successfully questioned their traditional ways of doing things and found ways to cut costs and still offer a quality product. In fact, the term low cost (which is often poorly translated into French as “bas prix” or low price) simply means that – since operating costs are lower – one can ultimately offer lower prices. Of course, the calculations are very different for Air Canada from what they are for WestJet when it comes to a $99 Montreal-Toronto flight. Since these two companies do not have the same cost structure, one operates such a flight at a loss, while the other can make a profit. For WestJet, the price is in line with its operating costs, while for Air Canada, it is simply a strategy to boost sales or keep up with the competition.

An increasingly popular business model

The avant-garde, low-cost concept was first adopted by Southwest Airlines in the United States back in 1978. Although it has taken time to catch on, the low-cost concept and the carriers using it are causing a lot of turbulence in the airline industry. WestJet was the first to adopt the concept in Canada and it has been followed by JetsGo, Canjet and Air Canada’s Zip and Tango services.

Even airports are investing in the market. Marseille, Beauvais, Geneva and, most recently, Singapore have all announced plans to open low-cost terminals expressly for these carriers. Could Montréal’s suburban Saint-Hubert Airport be far behind?

To counter stiff competition from low-cost carriers, France’s national rail company (SNCF) has also decided to explore the concept. It has launched a low-cost version of its TGV high-speed rail service, combined with an innovative array of special services. Basically, the rail company is offering exclusive online-booking and “early-bird” rates, considering partnerships to enable customers to design their own products, and is testing a process whereby all tickets are checked upon boarding, rather than on the train.

In France, the Formule 1 hotel chain has revolutionized the economy hotel industry. The concept was developed in the 1980s after a study showed many travellers found hotel rooms too expensive. The entire hotel “production line” was closely scrutinized to reduce capital and operating costs. This type of hotel meets customers’ primary expectations: cleanliness, comfort and low-cost.

Low-cost cruises are now on the horizon. Already the owner of easyJet (a low-cost carrier), easyGroup will soon launch easyCruise. Some are criticizing the idea, saying that easyCruise is more about ocean transport and ferry service than an actual cruise. As opposed to the usual cruise concept based on luxury and attentive service, easyCruise will follow the example of the airlines with a reduced crew, simplified pay-per-use services and, above all, low prices.

Even destinations (Cuba, Tunisia and Turkey) are targeting the low-cost market. At the opposite end of the spectrum, destinations like Monaco, Île Maurice and Deauville wish to maintain their image as playgrounds of the elite.

To each his own, but make sure you are clear

Many successful businesses have proven the merit of the low-cost business model. When a company’s prime objective is to offer a low-priced product, it is important to communicate this clearly and ensure the customer understands what this implies in terms of quality, service and price.

The strength of those who develop new concepts lies in their ability to discern opportunities and take advantage of what the environment offers. Although this is easy enough to say, one must truly have a visionary streak to venture off the beaten path.

Source: Les Cahiers Espaces. “Stratégies de petits prix,” Vol. 79, November 2003.

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