Economies of Anti-Scale

Late last month, Mr. Smith reposted a couple of great posts on why Bigger Procurement is Not Always Better Procurement (Part I and Part II) over on SpendMatters UK. While sometimes bigger spend equals bigger discount, this is typically only true for the acquisition of consumables where there is a predictable economy of scale that kicks in at higher volumes — such as the production of identical goods on a production line or the sale of multiple software licenses.

In some markets, as Peter points out, increasing volume decreases costs. Let’s review his examples to understand why.

Short-Term Contingent Labour

Let’s say you want 100 additional workers for 20 days to help you stuff boxes for the Christmas rush. You might think that you should get a much better rate than the 10 workers you hired for your annual 4th of July promotion, but this is not likely to be the case. First of all, lots of organizations in your position will want extra workers for the Christmas rush, and the contingent labour organization will only have so many. Secondly, even if there is demand, why would an organization want to hire resources that will then be on the bench until at least February (for the mini-Valentine’s day rush)?

Bulk Pre-Paid Hotel Room Rates for a Year

Hotels, like airlines, make their money during peak travel and peak conference / festival seasons, and during these times, when they can charge the full amount allowed under law, the last thing they want to do is give you a room for 30% off of the normal rate, which is typically less than 35% of what they could be charging. As a result, the best deal you’re going to get is the average price they got for a room last year, as they will be hedging their bets.


Most energy plants still rely on oil, coal, and natural gas and, as a result, energy costs are dependent on the somewhat unpredictable prices for these limited resources. Plus, these energy companies can always get the maximum allowable price from consumers and small to midsize businesses with no negotiation power, so if they are selling most of the energy they are producing, and giving a big contract might require them to occasionally buy energy from the spot market during peak (heating/air conditioning) season, your big contract, that requires a big discount, is not attractive to them.

These are all economies of anti-scale. An economy where volume increases uncertainty (such as the short term contract for contingent labour who could be benched for long periods of time if hired by the contingent labour provider or the energy example), decreases profitability (such as the hotel example where having to give you a room during peak seasons cuts profit by 60% or more), or increases overhead cost per unit beyond a baseline is anti-scale. This last case includes any situation where customization is required or limited edition runs are required, as is common in jewelry or toys and games. Customization requires labour, and beyond a certain number of customized units, the provider would have to hire more labour who could not be fully utilized at the time of contract signing. This adds risk, and cost. Similarly, it does not matter how many limited edition collector cowbell* orders of 1,000 you put in if each requires a specialized mould to be produced. Each mould and line set up requires a fixed amount of time and that fixed overhead does not scale with more custom orders.

Thus, when sizing a spend opportunity, it’s important to first identify if you are dealing with a scale or anti-scale economy. There will typically be a much larger savings potential with an economy of scale than with an economy of anti-scale. Thus, if your organization is being measured primarily on savings, it’s important to identify those economies of scale categories as soon as possible.

* Even if you will always need more cowbell!