The ‘Pay What you Want’ experiment - can it really work? These Suffolk businesspeople have given it a try

Bon Colliins, the Distressed Artist

Bon Colliins, the Distressed Artist - Credit: Archant

Imagine running a business with the mandate that customers pay whatever they feel like for the product or service you provide. Sounds like a utopian dream, or a fast-track to bankrupcy?

Mischa Pearson . Picture: GREGG BROWN

Mischa Pearson . Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

The ‘pay-what-you-want’ (PWYW) concept was made famous by Radiohead in 2007, when they released their album In Rainbows as a digital download using PWYW and made more digital sales their previous six albums combined - although 62% of those were people who choose not to pay.

Clsoer to home, Mumford & Sons once headed up a PWYW gig at the Swan in Ipswich.

But PWYW isn’t just for bohemian rockers. Bon Collins, an artist based near Woodbridge, released launched a PWYW system earlier this month as a meant to shift pieces and make room for new work.

“I had toyed with the idea for quite some time,” she explained. “So often people will look at one of my pictures and say ‘I only wish I had the money for it’ and walk away. I always felt disappointed when they walked away because the picture could have gone away with someone who really loved it and it didn’t.”

Bon Collins artwork

Bon Collins artwork - Credit: Archant

Although its still in the early stages, Ms Collins says so far PWYW has been a success from a business perspective, and the Framlingham Sausage Festival last weekend was one of her best sales days to date. “People actually felt quite comfortable about it and often offered at least the retail price or very close,” she said. “From a business perspective it has been eye opening. The idea that someone could snap up certain pieces has led people who had previously dithered about buying a piece to take action.

“It’s also got me talking to people more and has felt very rewarding.

“It has got me thinking about whether I would implement this as a long term system for my business.”

Mischa Pearson used the PWYW model at Teapot Project, a community cafe in Ipswich, but for different motives - to enable homeless people to feel that they weren’t just getting another handout. “In theory, they could pay in time, or a donation,” she explained. “In practice, they offered so much more.

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“What I believe to be fundamental in its success as a model, is it’s ability to foster an environment based on exchange, which as a former homeless person of two years, I understood the importance of; it’s hard to accept charity. I worked and paid taxes throughout my homelessness, wanting to feel I was ‘doing my bit’.

“Lining up at a soup kitchen can feel demoralising to those who struggle to make ends meet, where offering food on a pay as you feel basis removes that stigmata and opens the space up to anyone, because you’ve removed the financial barrier without the label of a hand out.

“This immediately creates social inclusion. I used to say my customers would leave their social class at the door and pick it up on the way out.

“People have sung, read poetry and even offered hugs for their meal; often on days I quietly needed them, too. We laughed together, sang together, cried together, cooked together, washed up together and most important of all, we broke bread together.”

The Teapot Project cafe closed down last year after Ms Pearson says they became “victims of our own success” by proving the commercial viability of the space they were operating from and being given notice to leave. But she has no regrets.

“We never knew how much money we’d take or if we’d ever afford the outgoings of our cafe based on this model; and many were dubious when I took the decision to open with it, but I’m so very glad I did.

“We quickly learned, PAYF holds no prejudice, and for every person that can’t afford to pay for their lunch financially, there’s a hero willing to pay £20 for a cuppa and some cake. Subsequently, we met a lot of heroes.”