Alexander MacKay coleads the Pricing Lab at Harvard Business School, a research center devoted to studying how companies set prices. Since the pandemic, he has watched how businesses have become more willing to experiment with what they charge their customers.
Big companies that had previously pushed through one standard price increase per year are now raising prices more frequently. Retailers increasingly use digital price displays, which they can change with the touch of a button. Across the economy, executives trying to maximize profits are effectively running tests to see what prices consumers will bear before they stop buying.
Huge disruptions to supply chains pushed up corporate costs during the pandemic and forced many companies to think more creatively about their pricing strategies, Mr. MacKay said. That supercharged a trend toward more rigorous pricing, and showed many companies that they could more boldly play with prices without chasing shoppers away. The experimentation continues even as costs ease.
“We may have prices changing more quickly than they have before,” he said. That could mean up or down, though companies are generally more eager to raise prices than cut them.
Firms are trying to figure out how to protect the profits they have built since the pandemic. For big companies in the S&P 500 index, the average profit margin — the percentage of profit relative to revenue — soared in late 2020 and into 2021, as government stimulus and the Federal Reserve’s emergency interventions stoked consumer demand. At the same time, companies raised their prices so much that they more than covered higher costs for energy, transportation, labor and other inputs, which have recently started to come down.
Corporations as varied as Apple and Williams-Sonoma recently reported their highest-ever margins for the third quarter, while Delta Air Lines said its international routes generated record profitability over the summer.
Margins eased somewhat last year, but have recently recovered to levels that would have set records before the pandemic. Average margins in nearly every sector in the S&P 500 are running near or above 10-year highs, according to Goldman Sachs.
“Companies are maintaining or even expanding margins because they are not passing these cost cuts onto consumers,” said Albert Edwards, a strategist at Société Générale, who called recent moves in margins “obscene.”
Now, companies are trying to figure out how to set prices to protect profits at what could prove to be a turning point. High interest rates and waning savings are making some — though by no means all — shoppers more price sensitive.
Many companies may be able to protect profits just by holding prices steady as their own costs come down. But some are still thinking about whether they can push prices up further as demand cools and overall inflation abates.
“I don’t think companies have the monopoly power to just willy-nilly raise prices,” said Ed Yardeni, president of the research firm Yardeni Research.
There’s a focus on margins over market share.
Many corporations are talking on earnings calls about how they are prioritizing profit margins — even when that translates into less growth.
Take Sysco, the food wholesaler. Its local market business has turned slower recently, Kevin Hourican, the company’s chief executive, said on an October earnings call.
But “Sysco is not reacting by leading with price to win share,” he said, referring to the tactic of cutting prices to gain more customers, which is commonly used during downturns. “Instead, we are focused on profitable growth.”
Lennox, a heating and air-conditioning company, is working to perfect its pricing strategy based on years of data, Alok Maskara, the firm’s chief executive, said at an investor event this summer.
People in the industry are “margin-dollar focused versus revenue-dollar focused,” he said, implying that fewer, more-profitable sales are preferred to many, less-profitable ones.
That’s a shift from post-2009 practice.
The focus on higher margins — even if it means selling less — is in some cases a shift away from the conventional wisdom in the years during and after the 2009 recession. Back then, some executives felt compelled to compete on price for cost-sensitive shoppers. For hotels, that meant a focus on filling every room.
“If you remember back in the Great Recession, there was this view of let’s just drop rates until we get people to heads in beds,” Leeny Oberg, Marriott’s chief financial officer, said in a September meeting with investors. She added that “it wasn’t necessarily the right strategy all the time.”
Now “the industry has clearly learned some lessons,” she said. Over the past few years, the company has aimed for more of a balance between maximizing revenue and profit, she noted.
Retailers, which have been caught out by shifting consumer tastes in recent years, are talking more lately about “inventory discipline,” or keeping less product in stock, so that they can avoid selling things at clearance prices. The logic is that it’s better to sacrifice a few sales by running out of products than being forced to slash prices in a way that hits the bottom line.
The clothing chain American Eagle Outfitters has been expanding its margins by “maintaining tight inventory and promotional discipline,” Jay Schottenstein, the company’s chief executive, said on a November earnings call.
Companies learned they can charge more than they thought.
While consumers are pulling back from some purchases as prices rise, that is not universally true — hence the value of experimentation. Robert J. Gamgort, the chief executive of Keurig Dr Pepper, said recently that consumers have shown little reaction to higher costs for carbonated drinks.
That suggests “it was too good of a value at the start at this,” he said at an investor conference in September, referring to the recent inflationary period. “It was underpriced.”
The company, which raised prices at its U.S. beverage unit by 7 percent last quarter, highlighted “strong gross margin expansion” at the top of its latest earnings report.
Some executives also find that they can charge more by branding something as a luxury product or experience.
“Despite the current economic environment, we continue to see consumers trade up to premium amenities,” Melissa Thomas, chief financial officer at the movie theater chain Cinemark, said on a November earnings call.
But price sensitivity may return.
Kellogg, the cereal company, had been passing through substantial price increases without losing customers — a situation economists call low price elasticity. It’s like if you snap a rubber band (raise prices) but it doesn’t react (shoppers keep buying).
But recently, consumers are beginning to pull back in response to sticker shock.
“Price elasticity has hit the market pretty meaningfully,” Gary Pilnick, Kellogg’s chief executive, said on a call with analysts last month. “You might recall that there’s been about 35 percent of price increases over the last couple of years for us, and the elasticities were fairly benign for quite some time.”
Price sensitivity is also showing up at brands that cater to lower-income consumers, like Walmart and McDonald’s, which have seen business expand as wealthier people look for deals.
“We continue to gain share with both the middle- and higher-income consumers,” Ian Borden, chief financial officer of McDonald’s, said on an October earnings call, although he noted that the company was seeing its lower-income customers struggle.
The ability to raise prices — or keep them high — may not last.
Even as companies are getting creative to protect their margins, the economy has also held up better than many expected. Overall growth has remained rapid, consumer spending has expanded, and a long-warned-about recession has remained at bay.
The question is whether companies will be able to protect profits in an environment where that momentum slows.
“Customers are rebelling,” said Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management. “We have reached that point of resistance.”