Today is the day I’m finally tackling the controversial issue of pricing in photography. Specifically, discounts. As a small business owner and service provider I’ve been asked for a discount more times than I can count. I believe we’re living in what I like to lovingly call the “Groupon Era,” where no one pays full price anymore. Pricing for everything online and in stores is in red ink or with flashing lights and lightning bolts pointing to it.
Picture that shirt at The Gap that was going for $39 so you were on the fence about buying it, until you saw the redlined original price of $59 and you couldn’t get to the checkout line fast enough with your steal of a deal. There’s a definite psychology to discount shopping too tangled to get into here, so let’s just say that in a nutshell, buying things at a lower price makes us feel good. We feel like we got more value out of what we’re getting because we paid less for it than others would have.
As a small business owner with no red lines through the pricing on my website I have to say I’ve felt the brunt of the “Goupon Era” mentality to the point of… well… sometimes rudeness. Some people don’t know they’re being rude when they ask for a discount or tell me my pricing is too high and I actually don’t blame them, I blame the discount culture we live in. But these are some things that have been said to me:
“Ha! Don’t you think that’s a little expensive?”
“Is there any way you could just charge me less?”
“Can you do the same amount of work for $200 instead of the $700 you quoted me? Our budget is $200 for the project.” (coming from a private equity firm with a self-proclaimed portfolio of several million dollars in holdings, by the way.)
“I don’t understand why I have to pay that, I only want 1 photo. Why can’t you just take 1 photo? You just want my money—this is a scam.” (I wouldn’t have believed this one myself if there wasn’t a photo assistant in the room to verify this. This was actually said to my face.)
Now this blog post isn’t going to be another one of those “OMG DON’T ASK FOR A DISCOUNT THAT’S SO RUDE” posts, because I get it. I shop at thrift stores because I love the thrill of the hunt and getting a $50 sweater for $5. I love my money, I worked hard for it, and I HATE parting with it. I’m a part of the discount culture and I hate paying full price for things. So I get it. I totally get it.
And as a small business owner I have to face the fact that discounts are common practice and here to stay. But instead of laying out my expense sheets, justifying my pricing, and begging people not to discount hunt with their photographers, I decided to draw up some tips for both clients and photographers to better navigate the discount road. So here they are: tips for how to ask your photographer for a discount, and tips for the photographer on what to do when you’re asked for a discount.
How to ask your photographer for a discount:
- If you think the price is expensive, ask yourself what you are comparing to. Is this particular photographer more expensive than another? If so, compare their portfolios, their experience, etc. Or is it possible that you just had a lower number in your mind when you started price shopping? Which is totally fine if that happened, you did nothing wrong by expecting it to be less. But now that you’ve been given a number different from what you expected, try to figure out if your expectation was within range of the value of the service in the market. Look at pricing from several other photographers with portfolios you like—if there’s a trend, chances are your expectations were off, and that’s okay. Now adjust your budget or the project accordingly.
- If you’re going to ask the photographer for a discount, start with asking if they have any existing discounts or a time of the year when they run a promotion. Some wedding photographers, for example, have lower rates for times when business is slower for them, such as during the winter, Thursdays, or Fridays. Be prepared to give a little if you want to take a little. Asking for a discount is asking for something for nothing, so you might have to adjust your own plans to make the price you want work.
- Think about “what’s in it for them.” Photographers are small business owners. They only offer discounts when they can get something legitimately good for their business in return. Something that makes less work for them they might do for less money. For example, I have a standing 2-at-once headshot discount where if 2 people come in for a headshot at the same time they each get 20% off their session. This makes less work for me since I don’t have to schedule back and forth with 2 people for 2 different sessions when they come together, so I pass that time/effort savings onto them in the form of a discount.
- Please remember that this person is a working professional who owns a small business, and asking them to do their work for cheaper with no good reason or incentive is, well, let’s just say it, insulting. Your boss wouldn’t say “your paycheck is going to be half what it usually is this week because your pay is not in our budget,” and if that did happen, how would you feel? Just try to keep this person’s feelings in mind when asking for a discount. Word it carefully and with respect.
For photographers—how to give a discount:
- Offer a standing discount that makes good business sense for you: clients get a reduced rate, but you get something of equal value in return. For example, a discount for someone who refers a new client to you, or an exchange of services of equal value such as 15% off photo services for your hair stylist who gives you 15% off his or her services to you. Or offer a discount for a cause you believe in. I offer discounts to military personnel because I see how hard it can be to transition from active military to making a career change and I want to offer a discount on professional headshots so they can do that more easily, and I view it as a small thank you for serving our country. It legitimately makes me feel good to offer that discount and when someone redeems it. Also having a short list of standing discounts gives you a good canned response when someone gives you that “can I have a discount?” question. It turns an awkward conversation into an empowered one where you can list off all of the exact situations that qualify for a discount, and puts the responsibility back onto the client to see if they fit into one of those situations.
- Know your numbers, know your business, and know what you can and can’t do with your pricing. Assert yourself and avoid the guilty feeling that you have to make everyone happy with your pricing by immersing yourself in your profit and loss statements, expense reports, and pricing structure. Know your numbers thoroughly, know why you charge what you charge, and then own it. If you want to help a client out without discounting your rate, consider adding value by adding service instead; such as a free retouched photo, an extra hour of event coverage, or offer to throw in some free prints.
- Remember that some people just aren’t your clients. And that’s okay. Even when they beg you. Even when it’s been a slow month. Take care of yourself and listen to your emotions and determine if you’re relinquishing discounts because they make good business sense or because someone is toying with your emotions and trying to make you feel guilty because they can’t or don’t want to pay for it. Every time someone asks for a random discount I don’t offer or tells me my rates are too high for them I feel crummy. It does beat me down a little. But then I scope out my competitors’ rates, look through my own portfolio, and I straighten my shoulders and remind myself that my pricing is correct and it’s okay that it’s not for everyone.
- Think of the industry. If you’re a working photographer you’re part of the photography industry, and we photographers stick together. Every time you lower your rate, another photographer gets asked to lower theirs because someone out there got it for cheaper. Please keep the integrity of your profession in mind and your rates in line with industry trends. So many of your fellow photographers are still working part time and even full time jobs outside of their profession because of the discount culture created by bidding sites and other service industry pricing pitfalls. If you haven’t already done so, consider joining a local or national pro photo group like the PPA so that you can keep up with the issues everyone in your industry is facing so we can face them together.