Is publishing a price always "Transparent"?

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the Future of Home (FoH) conference, sponsored by the Business of Home. This sort of conference is certainly needed in our industry and one of the topics which kept coming up was Transparency.  There has recently been an emphasis to increase the transparency of industry practices in order to adapt to doing business in the online world. The internet has increased awareness and transparency across all walks of life, and the lack of transparency breeds mistrust, which is unquestionably hindering our industry. However, most of the time, the transparency effort has focused on pricing in our business. I cannot speak for interior designers’ pricing models, but for a manufacturer, or maker, what if being transparent means not publishing a price? 

The Transparency panel at FoH consisted of the CEOs of Artsy and 1st Dibs (insert ironic emoji here). Unsurprisingly, both leaders of these e-commerce platforms were in favor of pricing transparency and advocated for it. Of course, this is how they make commissions (I do not recall their own dealer pricing, fees or commissions being discussed). And this makes sense for pieces that are existing and readily available. We have, in fact, published pricing on our own website for pieces that are extant, like our antique collection and quick ship items. But for models we make to order, there is always some customization that impacts pricing. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. But regardless of the degree of customization, my concern is that a published price can create a false sense of what something “should” cost because people tend to think about pricing in linear terms. For example, if you want to make a parchment covered table a little bigger, sure a couple inches might not have a huge impact. But once you hit a certain dimension, you need to add another skin, which involves more material and more labor (both for laying the skin AND making the seam now). So the pricing around that dimension threshold is going to be much different (not linear). There are countless examples of this; most plywood comes in 96” lengths, so if you want shelves that are 110”, guess what… and so on.

I completely agree we, as an industry, need to drop the “iron curtain” and show the online world what we are about. This is how we will communicate our value.  But as I believe Chad Stark said on the “Future of the Trade” panel at FoH, there are a lot of ways to be transparent. We need to be transparent about business practices, where and how we make things, and, most importantly, what we make. We also need to be transparent about pricing – but when it comes to making something to order, in my opinion, nothing is more transparent than a quote. This may be overly poetic, but the quotation is where the creative process starts – working with the designer on what it is they want for a project and then figuring out how to turn the concept into reality. And once we figure out what goes into a piece and have a quote, knowing the details of a project and what sort of pricing thresholds are in play, we can then advise the designer how we could adjust the piece so as to fit the reality that they are dealing with without losing his/her vision. I fear, however, that this dialogue would go out the window with a published price. 

Perhaps my favorite takeaway from the FoH conference was when David Sutherland said, in regards to selling retail in his showrooms, “you can’t get more transparent than ‘No.’” We can open our process up, open our catalogs, works shops, design centers, and just about everything we do to illustrate the value of small, high-end, niche craftsmanship and design. But isn’t putting a price on something that doesn’t exist yet a bit like putting the cart before the horse? Our clientele are interior designers, and we are not a direct-to-consumer company, or brand. Publishing a price for an e-commerce, DTC brand is vital. Even if you are a trade company that offers the same product in a limited number of finishes, I can see the value of publishing those prices. But when we work with an interior designer, what we create is tailor made to fit their project. Dimensions, finishes, uses and function are all specific to it,…as is the mock up that is sometimes also required. - my point is that each job is different and to try and reduce this to a single price, or a “starting at” price, undermines the value of what we do and what interior designers do. The “service” component of the price related to a particular job is not something that can be easily transacted online. This is why a quote is, in my opinion, the most transparent summary of what’s going into making a bespoke piece. While it may not be immediately available online, I nonetheless do not believe this makes it less transparent.