On sales and discounts

July 21, 2019By Jan KovaříkThoughts

On sales and discounts

From time to time, I get an email from a customer asking for a discount. I always try politely explain, why I don't do any sales, but it is difficult to keep my answer brief without sounding harsh. That's why I've decided to wrote this article, so I can refer to it whenever I got a similar request (feel free to use it too). Don't expect any vocational marketing article, I have literally zero knowledge in marketing and the following text is rather my own brief personal reflection on this problem and as my experience is almost solely with icons, the following text will apply mainly to digital products.

I also have to say in advance, that I don’t think that sales and discounts are necessarily bad, actually there are a few occasions, when I was rather inclined to give a discount myself - for example requests from students or people who do not have regular income and can’t afford it - but the problem is, that this would set a dangerous precedent.

Everybody does it

I’m fully aware that many creators1 and developers around regularly and strategically offer discounts, to increase their income or get attention of new customers. Of course, it’s a personal decision of each individual and I don’t want to judge anybody here, just to explain my point of view and show you all impacts, which a simple discount can have.

Today, people are used to get discounts and sales literally everywhere and on almost every thinkable occasion. Some creators try to exploit the slightest chance to offer some form of discount. There are discounts for early birds, bulk discounts, seasonal sale, holiday sale, black Friday, happy hour, you name it. On top of that, discounts have additional label on them: “For a limited time only” to encourage you to buy things right now, without thinking.

Grocery Store
Discounts for eatables or any things that is good often replace by newer versions, can be actually very beneficial for everybody and make total sense.

To make everything even more bizarre, some of these discounts or sales for digital products slowly began to be permanent, by simply changing their label during the year or minor shift of their total amount. I could go on and on with examples, but I think you already see my point - sales and discounts became natural part of the price from the day one and thus are affecting the perceived value of the product. What does it mean? It means that often an indirect lie became part of the product as well and no one finds it strange anymore. This approach is, I think, especially ridiculous and harmful for digital products.

Why such discounts don't make any sense

While I can understand discounts on products that somehow spoil over time2 and it is simply necessary (and wise) to get them quickly of the shelf to customers (typically food or anything else what may become obsolete or unusable in a short time frame), I can’t see any justification for such discounts for the most of the digital products - except the desire for a short-term increase in profits. Again, I know that this is a common practice and often customers are expecting it by default, so why not give it to them, right?

One example for all

I think that one discount, might have a bigger impact and consequences, than it is visible on the surface. Let me draw an example for you, to illustrate what exactly feels weird and wrong to me, I’m sure you have a similar experience too.

  • You find and buy a digital product online for a regular price. Before, you've considered all the pros and cons and decided, if the value of the product expressed in money is adequate and worth to you, plain and simple.
  • Then, during the checkout (or process of obtaining serial number), you'll get on the mailing list of the developer.
  • After some time (often only a few days later - or worse: hours), you'll get an email with a great offer for a discount for a very same product, but now, for a half of its original price - and hurry, it's a time limited offer only! Sounds familiar?

What actually happened

Creator, maybe, gained more money in a relatively short time frame and a few “lucky” customers get the product for the reduced price. But there is more to it, as all existing customers, who bought this software for a regular price, may now feel cheated. It’s not only wrong, but everybody lost something here.

Creator literally traded a quick income for trust of existing customers, who believed the product even before the discount was offered, when they payed the full price set by developer. And the number of existing customers is probably much larger than these, who made their purchase during a sale, so paradoxically, in a long term, developer probably lost the most here.

Plus, existing customers may be even more upset now, as they clearly lost something from the original value of the product and next time, they think twice before they buy something with such uncertain value or something that is not on sale at the moment.

The only party, that may feel like it gained something, are customers who just bought this product for a lower price, but did they really gain something better? Isn’t a bit odd, that the original price was reduced just like that? So how’s the real value of the product? Will this be always like this with the next product from the same developer? Is it even safe to buy it? Should they always wait till sale to get the product for a lower price?

It means that often an indirect lie became part of the product as well and no one finds it strange anymore.

Because I vividly remember the feeling I had, when I got the email offering me discount on the product I’ve bought for a full price just a day before, I know for sure, it’s something I want to avoid in relationship with my customers. I don’t want to cheat nor to make them feel to be cheated, even if you could hide behind “a common practice” phrase.

Again, I’m not saying that discounts or sales are wrong in general, I just think that when you create a discount only because you want to somehow quickly improve your rate of sales, in a long term, it will most probably cause more harm than good for everybody involved.

It can be done differently

What’s maybe better to do instead, is to add something extra, something meaningful and valuable. It doesn’t have to be visible at first sight (for example a handbook), free online tools or it can be something brand new (such as new icons or updates for existing ones) or the best one: something customer even couldn’t expect, such as above standard technical support, etc.

To be fair, with this approach, it will probably take more time to create a solid customer base and your sales might not go through the roof overnight, but you’ll get something else instead: good and long relationship with your customers, with a feeling of satisfaction from work that actually might have some real value and lasts more than one “happy hour”.


Cover photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

  1. I'm intentionally using the word "creator" instead of "seller", because even when a creator is also a direct seller at the same time, it's not a seller (or at least shouldn't be) in a sense of an ordinary trader/dealer. 
  2. Of course it may also apply for outdated electronics or even some software, in cases when it's better to replace it with a newer version and motivate customers for an upgrade - for example for a security reasons. 

Jan Kovařík

Jan Kovařík

Hi, I'm Jan, freelance graphic designer focused on corporate identity and overall brand experience. I spent most of my free time with icons and symbols you can see on glyphicons.com. The rest of my time I divide between my family, my cat, my dog and Aikido.