Two kinds of Customer Acquisition Cost

A few days back, there was a story in Mint (Disclosure: I write regularly for them, and get paid for it) about Urban Ladder’s increasing losses. This was primarily on the back of increased marketing expenses, the report said.

Losses at Urban Ladder Home Décor Solutions Pvt. Ltd grew eight times to Rs.58.51 crore in the year ended 31 March from Rs.7.62 crore in the year-ago period, according to data available with the Registrar of Companies. Revenue rose 60% to Rs.19.21 crore from Rs.11.88 crore.

Advertising and marketing spending accounted for more than half of its expenses of Rs.77.72 crore. The online retailer spent Rs.40.24 crore on marketing, a whopping 11-time increase from Rs.3.57 crore a year ago. Employee costs surged to Rs.16.58 crore from Rs.4.69 crore.

With the startup madness starting to be tempered, with some companies (such as SpoonJoy) shutting down, others scaling back operations (TinyOwl, FoodPanda) and some others firing lots of employees (Helpchat, LocalOye), one of the big concerns in the startup ecosystem is “cash burn”, with a large part of the burn in most companies being accounted for by the cost of “acquiring” customers – you need to let your potential customers know that you exist, and get them to try you out in the hope that they become your regular customers.

All this is in the hope that once you “acquire” a customer, he will become a regular customer and so you defend your spend to acquire him (“customer acquisition cost”) based on the total profits you can make from him over a long period of time (“Life time value”). It’s not uncommon nowadays to see “CAC” and “LTV” being mentioned liberally in LinkedIn posts.

The problem with a lot of startups is that they continue to give “inaugural discounts” well after inauguration in order to achieve higher growth and customer base, only to see these customers disappear when the discounts disappear (US-based HomeJoy is a good example for this). In fact, I had written recently on the “optimal extent” to which a company should discount its products (the level at which the company can be profitable in “steady state”).

The thing with Urban Ladder is that while they are currently spending a lot of money to acquire customers (and a lot of it is through hoardings, known to be among the least effective ways to advertise),  they are not going the discount way. In other words, while they may have the odd seasonal discount the customers they acquire through their marketing activities still have to pay full price for the goods they purchase.

What this means is that customers once acquired have a higher chance of sticking on as long as they like their product – which is likely if Urban Ladder is doing a good job of designing products and marketing them to the right kind of customers. Even if Urban Ladder is going to cut down its customer acquisition spending at some point in time, that will only have an effect on the new customers being acquired, and existing customers will remain in the system.

Contrast this with a customer acquisition strategy built around discounting, where once the acquisition spend falls, existing customers are also affected and become more likely to exit the system.

So while it is fashionable to talk about “customer acquisition cost”, how this cost is incurred is important in determining how long the customers will stay. Spending on “third parties” (!= customers) to acquire customers is more sustainable than spending on customers. It is important to take this into consideration while determining if a company’s acquisition spending makes sense.


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