Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

The Return of the Square Deal

When did it get so hard to get a simple, square deal?

I can’t remember when it started, exactly, but it wasn’t always like this. Somewhere along the line, somebody in the or marketing schools started channeling Torquemada. A decision was made: Let’s confuse customers with so many options and price upgrades that we’ll take more of their money.

Never mind that they’ll loathe us after.

Thus we reach such pinnacles of painful performance as:

  • An airline ticket that was “only $624” – plus $735 in government taxes, fuel surcharges and fees.
  • An insurance quote that included 21 pages of pricing tables.
  • Gym membership options that are trickier than those “two trains start out from the same station” questions on the SAT.

Note to businesses: Please simplify your pricing strategy.

That’s the irony: I’m trying to spend money. I’ve done all the work, painstakingly visiting websites that still don’t fit properly on my iPad. I’ve battled obstinate shopping carts: Do I want to check-out as a guest, login, or create a new account? Would I like to add chocolates and balloons to my flowers order. Do you want to upgrade my faux warranty to a real one?

I’ve even endured the visual torture of deciphering hieroglyphics to prove my humanity before seeing the real price.

None of this is  necessary. We’re grown ups. We won’t be afraid by honest, simple pricing, without all the slickness. Once, we knew how to avoid the hucksters.  Now, everyone’s a surprise-at-close-pricer. Advertising artificially low prices followed by nickel-and-diming at checkout belies a very low opinion of consumers.

Did someone say Trucoat?

Companies today need to seriously rethink their pricing strategy. We simply want a “square deal” and a simple explanation. If you can’t explain your product or service in one page, you need to think again. It’s your price looks as good as the competitor’s, it better turn out that way. And no more charging $2 for a bottle of water in a $250 hotel room. It’s just petty.

Thankfully, there are some vestiges of sanity left.

Recently, I promised a client I’d email her a contract for our upcoming event. Her email reply: I don’t even need a contract. If you say you’re going to be here, that’s good enough for me. That’s right: in the world of paperwork and PDFs, we’d seal the deal with our word. I was honored, certainly, but it made me think:

Somewhere between “shaking on it” in the old days, and the three-ring-circus closing models of today, something important has been lost.

Trust between customers and vendors.

Confidence that what was bought included what was expected.

Enjoyment  that starts with the price-discovery process.

There’s a competitive opportunity here, too: Companies that become proficient at explaining their products – and costs – easily and exactly will gain market share. Those with fewer exceptions or costly extras will attract customers. Any upgrades should be things customers will anticipate, not reluctant upgrades that make the product acceptable.


In the movie Fargo, the character Jerry Lundegaard tries to play the good-guy by offering to knock a hundred dollars off the clear-coating on a new car, an upgrade the customer neither wanted nor was informed about. Alas, the coating is already applied, and the customer cannot have the car without it. Furious, the customer pulls out his checkbook and pays, deciding to just get it over with.

Those days are over.

Until the day someone can explain why the cable company only offers the classic movie channel as part of the college sports package, there will be a lot of work to do making our pricing strategy more sensible.

  • Bill Fields

    Amen Matt. One of my true mentors was an “old school” businessman who looked you in the eye and told you something that became his promise and you could count on that. Wish more people today would live by their words! (Always love a reference to Fargo!)

  • It is an astute observation about our society and the pricing startegies of all companies and industries. I always cringe when I walk in to my convenience store atached to the gas station for a soda. I can get one soda for $1.69 or 2 for $2.22. Seems to me that if the store was trying to reduce inventory, just make the price of each soda that week $1.11 so people don’t have to buy an extra soda they don’t want in order to feel like they “saved money.”