Real Networks Loses on the Up-Sell

Jul.21.09 | About: RealNetworks, Inc. (RNWK)

RealClick to enlargeOne of my very first jobs was working behind a concession counter for a big multi-plex cinema. It isn’t the sort of place where one would expect to learn a life skill, but early on I learned an important lesson in business, the art of the up-sell. [Photo by Thomas Hawk]

You see, movie theaters make very little from the box office receipts, so the concessions counter is the lifeblood of the industry. The setup is pretty much the same at every theater, but most people don’t tend to think about it. Because the actual cost of the popcorn and soda is so low, the theaters reap big profits from selling captive customers overpriced snacks and beverages.

One of the problems that theaters face, is that there are a ton of people who tend to order small sizes. It could be that they are trying to save money or that they don’t need oversized portions, but because the containers cost the theater more than the actual popcorn or soda, going from a small to a larger size tends to be pure profit for the theater.

To help “encourage” moviegoers to pay the max, theaters will price their small popcorns at ridiculously expensive levels and then have a minor jump in price from small to medium and medium to large. If you were to price the popcorn by ounce, a small would cost four times as much as a large, but because of the high cost at the small level, it makes it easier to convince consumers to pay a little bit extra for a lot more food.

When I sold concessions, the sales pitch would typically go “hey did you know you can get a large for only 50 cents extra?” That was all it took and at least 75% of the customers would go big.

In thinking about why my theater was so effective at up-selling, two things jump out at me. The first has to do with the way the pricing was set. Consumers got tremendously more value at the higher levels than the lower ones. It might be tough convincing someone to spend $5 on a bucket of popcorn to begin with, but once they made that purchase, an extra 10% for 200% more seems small. Second, they had an actual human explain this value to the customer. Concession employees were expected to upsell or suggestive sell on every single transaction. It could be subtle, but management made sure that every employee was at least presenting more options to the customers.

What made me take this trip down memory lane is a recent experience with Real’s (NASDAQ:RNWK) Rhapsody music service. Before the internet, napster, and digitization, I used to collect music with a passion. Records, Tapes, CDs, it didn’t matter. I would scour local garage sales and thrift stores looking for bargains, not to mention all of the BMG and Columbia House memberships.

When the internet first started to take off, my collecting habits intensified. I’d surf eBay for favorite artists. I didn’t care about the singles or the greatest hits, I was after the rare B-sides that were released internationally. There is something amazing about listening to an artist’s entire discography in order, but back then, it took a lot of money to buy every single song that an artist produced.

Once MP3s took off, I abandoned physical playback and spent many late nights digitizing my music. As time has gone on, though, I’ve realized what a hassle it is trying to maintain a large digital library. Computers have a way of freaking out once you go over a certain limit, there are countless hard drive failures involving added expenses and I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I’ve spent dealing with buffer overrun errors while backing up my music. The bottom line is that if you’re trying to collect a couple hundred thousand MP3s, it’s not only cheaper to rent than it is to buy, it’s cheaper just to store it.

Because I had such a large music collection, I never gave Rhapsody a chance, but as one hard drive failure after another has taken large chunks out of my music library, I’ve found myself turning to the internet for specific artists or songs that I’m now missing.

Over the last year, I’ve signed up for Rhapsody three different times to listen to music that’s disappeared over time. Thanks to their free trial offers, I’ve been able to hear a lot of great music, but never kept my membership for longer than a month.

What surprised me so much about the experience was how much I enjoyed it. Not only can I get the latest top hits for a fraction of what I used to spend, but I also get access to the expensive b-sides that were never in wide circulation. The first time I logged onto the service, I was estactic after discovering an entire album’s worth of material from my favorite artist.

Given how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the service, one would think that it would be a no brainer for me to spend a modest amount of money for access to more music than you can even think about, but when it came down to becoming a paying member, Real Networks lost me on the up-sell.

You see, as a streaming internet music service, Rhapsody really is an amazing product, but its lack of a robust download solution means that if you want to take your music on the go, customers have limited options. Since Real realizes that not every consumer wants downloadable functionality, they price their service in two tiers.

The first is the standard 'all you can eat' streaming music of just about any song or artist you can think of (we’re talking stuff not even on Bit Torrent.) For $2 more though, you can download songs to “approved devices” and rock out using a portable device that doesn’t need to be connected to the net.

As an internet streaming service, I would have been happy to pay their monthly fee for all of the music that they provide, but by offering a download “upgrade”, it makes me keenly aware of a significant limitation to the service. As is, I can listen to Pandora via the internet now, so a streaming-only service makes me second-guess how much value Rhapsody really has. I wouldn’t even mind paying the $2 more per month just for streaming access, but don’t see enough value in the $2 upgrade to justify signing up for the downloading tier.

Part of this is because I’m not able to download a DRM free MP3. Even if you download your music, you still have to “refresh” your approved device once a month or your songs get disabled. You’re also limited in the number of devices you can play your Real files on.

As much as I prefer downloading over streaming, it simply isn’t worth an extra $24 per year for a weak-sauce version of the real thing. Having to connect my cell phone to the net once a month is obnoxious and I’m not particularly fond of downloading music that I can’t play on all the electronic gadgets that I own.

If they eliminated the download tier, I’d probably be a customer right now, but by making me choose, they’ve persuaded me not to sign up for either package.

Not everyone purchased an up-sell when I sold concessions, but during my entire time behind the counter, I never had a single customer walk away without at least buying the small popcorn that they originally asked for. When it comes to Rhapsody though, the different pricing tiers have cost them at least one customer who would have paid, if he didn’t have to choose between streaming only or weak-sauce downloading.

I don’t know if Real does consumer surveys, but I bet that I’m not the only one to agonize over this distinction. Instead of using the price difference to highlight their weaknesses, Real would be better off by either raising the price $2 on everyone and then including their downloading solutions with the service, or eliminating the downloading tier entirely and focusing on being an amazing and comprehensive streaming service only. By trying to straddle between streaming and downloading, they are only confusing customers and highlighting the limitations to their service.