By KIM BELLARD

Nice try, Wendy’s. During an earnings call last month, President and CEO Kirk Tanner outlined the company’s plan to try a new form of pricing: “Beginning as early as 2025, we will begin testing more enhanced features like dynamic pricing and day-part offerings along with AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.” 

None of the analysts on the call questioned the statement, but the backlash from the public was immediate — and quite negative. As Reuters described it: “the burger chain was scorched on social media sites.”

Less than two weeks later Wendy’s backtracked – err, “clarified” – the statement. “This was misconstrued in some media reports as an intent to raise prices when demand is highest at our restaurants,” a company blog post explained. “We have no plans to do that and would not raise prices when our customers are visiting us most.”

The company was even firmer in an email to CNN: “Wendy’s will not implement surge pricing, which is the practice of raising prices when demand is highest. This was not a change in plans. It was never our plan to raise prices when customers are visiting us the most.”

OK, then. Apology accepted.

At this point it is worth explaining a distinction between dynamic pricing and the more familiar surge pricing. As Omar H. Fares writes in The Conversation: “Although surge pricing and dynamic pricing are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different definitions. Dynamic pricing refers to any pricing model that allows prices to fluctuate, while surge pricing refers to prices that are adjusted upward.”

Uber and other ride sharing services are well known for their surge pricing, whereas airlines’ pricing is more dynamic, figuring out prices by seat by when purchased by who is purchasing, among other factors.

Wendy’s wouldn’t be the first company to use dynamic pricing and it won’t be the last. Drew Patterson, co-founder of restaurant dynamic pricing provider Juicer, told The Wall Street Journal that dozens of restaurant brands used his company’s software. The company’s website doesn’t publicize those brands, of course. Still, he emphasized: “You need to make it clear that prices go up and they go down.” 

Dave & Busters is public about its pricing strategy. “We’re going to have a dynamic pricing model, so we have the right price at the right time to match the peak demand,” Dave & Buster’s CEO Chris Morris said during an investor presentation last year.  On the other hand, Dine Brands (Applebee’s/IHOP) Chief Executive John Peyton said. “We don’t think it’s an appropriate tool to use for our guests at this time.”

The potential revenue benefits are obvious, but there are risks, as Wendy’s quickly found out. Mr. Fares says: “One of the biggest risks associated with dynamic pricing is the potential negative impact on customer perception and trust. If customers feel that prices are unfair or unpredictable, they may lose trust in the brand.”

What Wendy’s tried to announce is not ground-breaking. Catherine Rampell pointed this out in a Washington Post op-ed:

In other words, things will be cheaper when demand is low to draw in more customers when there’s otherwise idle capacity. Lots of restaurants do this, including other burger chains. It’s usually called “happy hour.” Or the “early-bird special.” Non-restaurants do it, too. Think the weekday matinee deals at your local movie theater or cheaper airfares on low-traffic travel days.

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported: “An estimated 61% of adults support variable pricing where a restaurant lowers or raises prices based on business, with younger consumers more in favor of the approach than older ones, according to an online survey of 1,000 people by the National Restaurant Association trade group.” 

I wonder what the support would have been if the question had been about healthcare instead of restaurants. 

Like it or not, some form of dynamic pricing will come to healthcare. Want a private room instead of semi-private? Surge pricing. Willing to see a nurse practitioner instead of a physician? Dynamic pricing. Want to buy prescription drugs in the U.S. instead of in Europe? Surge pricing. Want a doctor’s appointment Monday morning instead of Tuesday? Surge pricing. Need an ER visit Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon? Surge pricing.

Some of these healthcare has been doing for years. Others, and even more insidious ones, are coming.

We have to know that the private equity firms that have invested in healthcare have to be interested. Yashaswini Singh and Christopher Whaley wrote in The Hill: “Over the last decade, private equity firms have spent nearly $1 trillion on close to 8,000 health care deals, snapping up practices that provide care from cradle to grave: fertility clinics, neonatal care, primary care, cardiology, hospices, and everything in between.”

They go on to warn: “Although research remains mixed on how it affects quality of care, there is clear evidence that private equity ownership increases prices. These firms aim to secure high returns on their investments — upwards of 20 percent in just three to five years — which can conflict with the goal of delivering affordable, accessible, high-value health care.”

Dynamic pricing has to look good to these firms. Surge pricing would look even better.              

But one doesn’t have to be owned by private equity to be rapacious in healthcare. Everyone is looking for margins, everyone is looking to maximize revenue, and consumers – A.K.A. patients – grumble about prices but pay them anyway, especially if their health insurance company is paying most of the cost. In today’s healthcare world, if you are a CEO or CFO and you’re not considering dynamic pricing, it’s close to malfeasance.

To me, the scariest part of Wendy’s plan wasn’t the dynamic pricing but the “AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.” Upcoding has been a problem in healthcare for as long as there has been coding, but when we get an AI-enabled menu of treatment options and suggested selling (aka treatments), well, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Maximize away.  

Look, I’m not going to Wendy’s even if they pay me, but I take my wife out on Valentine’s Day even though I know the restaurant has surged the hell out of its prices. Some things you pay for, and, when it comes to healthcare pricing, every day is Valentine’s Day.

I’m resigned to the fact that dynamic pricing has a toehold in healthcare already, but I’m holding out hope that we can use AI to help us make those recommendations and set those prices to deliver the most effective, efficient care, not just to maximize profits.

Wait Till Health Care Tries Dynamic Pricing

Nice try, Wendy’s. During an earnings call last month, President and CEO Kirk Tanner outlined the company’s plan to try a new form of pricing: “Beginning as early as 2025, we will begin testing more enhanced features like dynamic pricing and day-part offerings along with AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.” 

None of the analysts on the call questioned the statement, but the backlash from the public was immediate — and quite negative. As Reuters described it: “the burger chain was scorched on social media sites.”

Less than two weeks later Wendy’s backtracked – err, “clarified” – the statement. “This was misconstrued in some media reports as an intent to raise prices when demand is highest at our restaurants,” a company blog post explained. “We have no plans to do that and would not raise prices when our customers are visiting us most.”

The company was even firmer in an email to CNN: “Wendy’s will not implement surge pricing, which is the practice of raising prices when demand is highest. This was not a change in plans. It was never our plan to raise prices when customers are visiting us the most.”

OK, then. Apology accepted.

At this point it is worth explaining a distinction between dynamic pricing and the more familiar surge pricing. As Omar H. Fares writes in The Conversation: “Although surge pricing and dynamic pricing are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different definitions. Dynamic pricing refers to any pricing model that allows prices to fluctuate, while surge pricing refers to prices that are adjusted upward.”

Uber and other ride sharing services are well known for their surge pricing, whereas airlines’ pricing is more dynamic, figuring out prices by seat by when purchased by who is purchasing, among other factors.

Wendy’s wouldn’t be the first company to use dynamic pricing and it won’t be the last. Drew Patterson, co-founder of restaurant dynamic pricing provider Juicer, told The Wall Street Journal that dozens of restaurant brands used his company’s software. The company’s website doesn’t publicize those brands, of course. Still, he emphasized: “You need to make it clear that prices go up and they go down.” 

Dave & Busters is public about its pricing strategy. “We’re going to have a dynamic pricing model, so we have the right price at the right time to match the peak demand,” Dave & Buster’s CEO Chris Morris said during an investor presentation last year.  On the other hand, Dine Brands (Applebee’s/IHOP) Chief Executive John Peyton said. “We don’t think it’s an appropriate tool to use for our guests at this time.”

The potential revenue benefits are obvious, but there are risks, as Wendy’s quickly found out. Mr. Fares says: “One of the biggest risks associated with dynamic pricing is the potential negative impact on customer perception and trust. If customers feel that prices are unfair or unpredictable, they may lose trust in the brand.”

What Wendy’s tried to announce is not ground-breaking. Catherine Rampell pointed this out in a Washington Post op-ed:

In other words, things will be cheaper when demand is low to draw in more customers when there’s otherwise idle capacity. Lots of restaurants do this, including other burger chains. It’s usually called “happy hour.” Or the “early-bird special.” Non-restaurants do it, too. Think the weekday matinee deals at your local movie theater or cheaper airfares on low-traffic travel days.

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported: “An estimated 61% of adults support variable pricing where a restaurant lowers or raises prices based on business, with younger consumers more in favor of the approach than older ones, according to an online survey of 1,000 people by the National Restaurant Association trade group.” 

I wonder what the support would have been if the question had been about healthcare instead of restaurants. 

Like it or not, some form of dynamic pricing will come to healthcare. Want a private room instead of semi-private? Surge pricing. Willing to see a nurse practitioner instead of a physician? Dynamic pricing. Want to buy prescription drugs in the U.S. instead of in Europe? Surge pricing. Want a doctor’s appointment Monday morning instead of Tuesday? Surge pricing. Need an ER visit Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon? Surge pricing.

Some of these healthcare has been doing for years. Others, and even more insidious ones, are coming.

We have to know that the private equity firms that have invested in healthcare have to be interested. Yashaswini Singh and Christopher Whaley wrote in The Hill: “Over the last decade, private equity firms have spent nearly $1 trillion on close to 8,000 health care deals, snapping up practices that provide care from cradle to grave: fertility clinics, neonatal care, primary care, cardiology, hospices, and everything in between.”

They go on to warn: “Although research remains mixed on how it affects quality of care, there is clear evidence that private equity ownership increases prices. These firms aim to secure high returns on their investments — upwards of 20 percent in just three to five years — which can conflict with the goal of delivering affordable, accessible, high-value health care.”

Dynamic pricing has to look good to these firms. Surge pricing would look even better.              

But one doesn’t have to be owned by private equity to be rapacious in healthcare. Everyone is looking for margins, everyone is looking to maximize revenue, and consumers – A.K.A. patients – grumble about prices but pay them anyway, especially if their health insurance company is paying most of the cost. In today’s healthcare world, if you are a CEO or CFO and you’re not considering dynamic pricing, it’s close to malfeasance.

To me, the scariest part of Wendy’s plan wasn’t the dynamic pricing but the “AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.” Upcoding has been a problem in healthcare for as long as there has been coding, but when we get an AI-enabled menu of treatment options and suggested selling (aka treatments), well, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Maximize away.  

Look, I’m not going to Wendy’s even if they pay me, but I take my wife out on Valentine’s Day even though I know the restaurant has surged the hell out of its prices. Some things you pay for, and, when it comes to healthcare pricing, every day is Valentine’s Day.

I’m resigned to the fact that dynamic pricing has a toehold in healthcare already, but I’m holding out hope that we can use AI to help us make those recommendations and set those prices to deliver the most effective, efficient care, not just to maximize profits.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor

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