Not the Funeral Product IndustryWhen did it happen? Has the funeral SERVICE profession always been product focused? I think a long time ago, 25+ years ago – during the good ol’ days of unit pricing- caskets were always part of the success equation but not as much as a focal point (business wise) as they have been as late. I believe that we can blame the government! Well, it isn’t their fault completely, but when it came down that all funeral services and merchandise had to be itemized on the Goods and Services contract, monies had to be attributed to the various components.

Did the merchandisers at that time come up with The Plan? “If we get the funeral home operators to attribute a good portion of the dollars from the Unit-Price total to the product, then the product would become a very important part of the financial success equation.” Whether they did or not we are left with under-price service offerings and over-priced merchandise. Another contributing factor could be the structure of Memorial Societies’ packages. Usually they target service fees, thus driving down those prices. This leaves merchandise as the one thing that funeral homes could supplement the decreased returns on their service offerings.

The Funeral Arrangement Lottery
Upon the completion of every arrangement, when the manager or owner looks over the contract, there is an uncontrollable force that draws the eyes to Merchandise column, bringing feelings of glee or melancholy. Solid copper, inlayed mahogany – instant margins are calculated in one’s head and it’s a good day! With the current pricing structure, it would be more profitable to have families select a cherry casket with immediate cremation than a cloth covered lift lid with a traditional funeral. Maybe it should be called the Funeral Product Industry. I apologize if this strikes a chord, but if the sale of merchandise is what gets you excited, it’s going to be a glum future.

Reality Check
The Pollara Report spells it out quite simply, consumers value funeral merchandise the least! For those who may not have seen the results, please see them below. Coupled with this sentiment from the public, they also told us repeatedly that they feel costs are too expensive. In addition, Canadians surveyed stated that the No. 1 reason for preferring cremation is that it is less expensive.

Value of Products and Services (10 point rating scale)

  • Professional services such as embalming, conducting the funeral, visitations, & the receptions (7.1)
  • Out-of-pocket expenses including flowers, notices in the newspaper / memorial cards, clergy & church fees (6.5)
  • Cemetery property, including plots, niches or crypts (6.5)
  • Transportation such as a hearse, limo or other car (6.4)
  • Memorials such as bronze markers / granite headstones (6.3)
  • Caskets (5.6)
  • Urns (5.6)
  • Vaults (4.2)

Impressions of Funeral Industry

  • Funerals are too elaborate, prefer a service that was simple & cost effective: Agree – 78%, Disagree – 16%, Don’t Know – 6%
  • Funerals cost too much, industry should be regulated: Agree – 71%, Disagree – 17%, Don’t Know – 12%

Reasons for Preferring Cremation

  • No. 1 Reason: Cremation is less expensive – 23%

Source: Pollara Report, March 2004

There could be two reasons for this response. Either we are not communicating the value of all of our offerings (both services and products) or they are not seeing any value in anything we offer! The merchandise suppliers obviously supply funeral homes with “product knowledge” but who should be supplying the “service knowledge?” The one who creates it of course – the funeral home! Do you provide your staff equal amounts of service knowledge as compared to product knowledge? How are your services presented? In many instances it doesn’t take long for the “service presentation” to become product focused. “Mrs. Jones, the difference between a funeral service and a memorial service is that the …” Gee, didn’t they tell us that they do not value caskets and now we have just tied our most profitable service offering to something that doesn’t have a perceived value.

Is this the slippery slope? So the consumers have a low perceived value of funeral products, they tell us that funerals are too expensive – with the casket being the biggest ticket item, then we try offering our services where the definition of a funeral is dependant of the presence of a casket, and the number one reason for the preference of cremation is that it is less expensive. Is all of this just a coincidence?

We must realize that the rest of the world does not have the love affair that we as funeral professionals do over merchandise. For myself, I definitely want a solid maple casket placed in a double-reinforced copper vault, but we cannot assume that the public will be as passionate about funeral products as we are. Furthermore, we didn’t have to wait for the Pollara Report to tell us – the public has been telling us for years.

As previously suggested, cost is not the primary driver of impressions of the funeral industry, however, it remains an important consideration as a majority of Canadians who have yet to arrange a funeral believe that it is an expensive endeavour.  This perception is compounded by the fact that Canadians do not appear to attribute significant value to funeral products and services, beyond the professional assistance they would receive on the front line.  With the trend toward simplicity evident across all demographic cohorts, this value defines what future funeral clients will be searching for, for themselves and for their loved-ones.

Source: Pollara Report, March 2004

If we have been successful in educating our families that Funerals equals Caskets, and they do not see the value in Caskets, then what are they telling us when they say, “I don’t want to have a funeral.”?

This is not the fault of the manufacturers; they are just conveying their message to their customers (the funeral homes) very well – offering product knowledge in the form of seminars, print, Internet, etc. Are you spending as much time educating your staff and communicating to your customers the benefits of your offerings as the manufacturers provide to you about theirs?

The Solution

  • Align your service and product offerings (and the manner in which they are conveyed) with what your customer values – if they are not product focused nor should you be
  • Reformat your pricing by shifting some margin from merchandise to services
  • Invest in training and equipping your staff with knowledge to properly present your service offerings

The Effect
By lowering your merchandise prices you will:

  • Further the cause of strengthening the relationship with your customer as they will feel that they are not being forced to purchase something that they feel is over priced
  • Be able to inform price shoppers that you have the least expensive merchandise in town
  • Reduce the probability of third-party merchandisers (casket & urn stores, Internet casket & urn website, cemeteries, etc.) having an impact on your merchandise sales
  • Encourage families to purchase higher quality products, which will convey a positive message to others attending the service.
    • Friend: “Gee, Martha that looks like an expensive casket you got for your husband.”
    • Window: “Actually, not really, it was quite reasonable.”
  • Be able to reply to the cynic who says, “You funeral directors jack up the prices by two or three times wholesale!” “No we don’t.”

The Path to Get There

It is all well and good to tell you to raise your service fees and lower your merchandise prices, however it would not be right on my part to put this idea in your head and then leave you out on your own. This transition is easier said than done and if it isn’t well planned out, it could be disastrous to your business. You will need to be prepared to be able to justify your service fees – but I will leave that up to you as you are the experts of your offerings and of your community. Once mastering the communication of the value of your services, one option to help this transition is to create funeral packages for each of your service offerings. There are more complex pricing strategies available but by following the packaging model, you will be able to transition the service / product pricing structure easier, increase average funeral values, and provide more value to your families.

The intension of this article is not to bash the manufacturers of funeral merchandise but to convey to the funeral home operators that they must align their strategies and offerings with those of their customers. And if this alignment is successful, the consumers will be more apt to purchase products as they should have a higher perceived value of then which in turn will increase merchandise sales, and also make the merchandise suppliers happy!

So, who is going to be the first in town to have the lowest priced merchandise? Maybe the one with the new competitive advantage.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Am I bang on or out to lunch? Please leave your comments below.

3 responses to “It’s Not the Funeral Product Industry!”

  1. Finally – someone who gets it! What a refreshing post. Our funeral homes migrated from a product based profit margin mix to a service base mix years ago. I can speak from experience, consumers love it and so does our bottom line. Our margins are consistent – regardless if the product mix! I will also go on record to say that some of our directors resisted the transition (shocking I know) due to lack of “saleman” ship if you will. As a former Forethought vender – we (along with the other companies) did a great job of placing value on the “box” – rather than the life lived. Really – how many people walk away from a funeral (unless they are in the industry) and talk about the casket? At most, they will remember the color or wood selection and how the deceased looked. What really does differntiate one funeral home from another, its the service they provide. On CNN today, they discussed a person who died, who had been the inventor of something to do with “Pringles Potato Chips” and has his cremains split between and urn and a Pringles can! How cool is that! If you relied solely on product…well, you wouldn’t be thinking this was so cool. In my opinion only, many funeral home owners have made moneyt by accident – they just did what their fore-fathers did. Now, they will have to understand the margins, the mix and what the overall operating cost it. My concern is that shifting to a service based model, some funeral homes will not grasp it and be afraid to charge what is realistic. Consumer expect to pay for service, we should not be afraid to charge and charge realistically for our service!

  2. The funeral itself is our most important “product”, isn’t it? If we go back a few years to Gilmore and Pine’s book about the experience economy it is quickly obvious that, as you say, we are all about service. People have discovered they don’t have to be embalmed, they don’t have to have a casket, they don’t need funeral directors to be ushers, etc. So best we begin creating visitations and funerals that people want to go to and are willing to pay for because they are wonderful experiences. We call them Life Story Funerals. We no longer bury or cremate the story right along with the body. The life story makes everything we do relevant and is the springboard, then, for creating funerals that are all about life and memories, not death and caskets. Every life has a story, a beautiful story that connects us all to each other, it’s what makes us who we are and who we will become. Our stories are the very fabric of life, and if we don’t write them down and preserve them they will be lost forever. The focus on caskets actually started years ago when the furniture maker sold caskets and then, eventually, offered his home as a “funeral home”. Death was sudden and unexpected in those days and the casket was the focal point. Today, we die differently. Most deaths are not unexpected. In fact, many come as a relief, with the family having grieved, in a way, at the nursing home. This shifted the focus off of caskets, urns, burial or cremation and onto the celebration of life. The public is ahead of where we are in funeral service. They are already looking for a funeral “experience” that THEY want, as opposed to what funeral homes are giving them.

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