We’re Shorting Dignity PLC Stock 5

Warning: This blog post is not investment advice and neither is the report which it links to. By accessing either, you confirm that you have read and agree to the Terms of Use.

Hello,

We’re rapidly bringing price transparency to the funeral industry

At Beyond*, we’re on a mission to make choosing a funeral director a more transparent process. To that end, and to date, we have signed up over 800 independent funeral directors to share their full, itemised, comparable prices online.

There are, however, two large obstacles to price transparency in this market, namely Dignity PLC and Coop Funeralcare. They represent 34% of the market and are desperate to avoid price transparency, despite occasional claims otherwise.

UK Funeral Market Affiliation Dignity PLC
UK Funeral Market Affiliation

Dignity’s business model is unsustainable

Why such shyness with prices? It’s because they are significantly more expensive than the rest of the market – Dignity by 83% compared to prices on our site. If they were to put transparent, easily comparable prices online, consumers might realise this price differential and take their business elsewhere.

Dignity are, in my view, the worst offenders – because not only do they hide their prices, they also hide their name. When they buy up independent funeral directors, they don’t rebrand them as Dignity. Instead they keep the old family name above the door, so that consumers don’t realise that the branch has become part of a corporate. They simply swap out the staff, put the prices up and no-one’s the wiser.

Here at Beyond, we believe that Dignity’s business practice and model are unsustainable. We think it has been propping up its share price with unearned price increases and self-defeating acquisitions for years. That it is a house built on sand, with a tsunami on the horizon.

We’ve published a detailed analysis on their business

Now, I hear you say, it’s easy to make a few disparaging comments about a £1.3bn market cap company. Especially a company who could be seen as a competitor. So, to that end, I offer you two tokens of our conviction.

Firstly, today we publish a 13,000-word analysis of Dignity PLC entitled “The Reaper Calls For Dignity” written by my co-founder James Dunn. Within the report he examines Dignity’s business in detail, using both publicly available information and our market expertise to make a clear case that they are grossly overvalued.

And we’re shorting Dignity’s stock

Secondly, we are so confident of their failings that we have taken a short position on Dignity stock to the tune of £50,000. To clarify, we have placed Beyond’s money (and some of our own) on the belief that Dignity’s share price will fall. I’m not sure this is traditional business practice or expenditure for a start-up. Then again, I’m not sure there has been another such market where a large incumbent has escaped even the lightest of scrutiny.

We’ve been in the funeral industry for a couple of years now and one of the key things that has stood out to me is that, notwithstanding the many genuine people trying their hardest to serve the consumer, there is an entrenched fear of rocking the boat; of calling out the elephants in the room. Despite the constant public consternation at funeral price cost rises, there is little desire from the industry associations or the media to call out the big guys and their opaque practices, which drive up prices and bring the overall industry into disrepute.

Well, today Dignity PLC, here’s us calling you out.

Best

Ian

P.S. Dignity CEO Mike McCollum recently sold most of his shares – we wonder why?

 

*Previously Funeralbooker

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5 Comments

  1. Will read the detailed report with interest, thanks. I couldn’t agree more with the fear of ‘rocking the boat’. As a team of over 30 celebrants, we have been trying to challenge the outrageous prices for years but all this has meant is that FDs won’t use our team, a form of blacklisting going on for anyone who will speak out about it. I would be happy to share a several pieces of info with you.

  2. Brian Howard B M &C Howard Funeral Services. I will send you a copy of a letter that I wrote to the local press and MP Mr I Duncan Smith then minister of the DWP in 2013, there was quite a few letters sent during 2012 and 2013 concerning the Social Funeral Fund, Dignity, Co-op, and the NAFD. The problem with Dignity, Co-op funeral care, and other funeral groups are backed up by the NAFD which is just puppet and not fit for purpose.

  3. Dignity stock fallen from £22 at time of article to under £10 today.

    classic case of a business that has enjoyed high margins but is vulnerable as the higher priced service offered does not add value to the customer.

  4. Only just discovered this website. What an excellent and accurate piece of research. Well done. Whether or not it was your intention, you’ve benifited society as a whole. Thank you.

  5. Amazing that Dignity’s share price has recovered a little after an initial 20% drop in the in the light of the Competition and Markets Authority investigations into the funeral market – you’d have though the only way was down!

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Government Probate Fee Hikes to Hit Bereaved Families Hard 0

Family holds up piggy bank spilling out coins

In a controversial move, the government will be changing their official probate fees from £215 to as much as £6,000 for some bereaved families.

At the moment, families who need a grant of representation to settle the estate of someone who has died pay £215 in government probate fees, or £155 if they have professional help. Estates worth less than £5,000 are exempt.

Under the new fee structure, families settling an estate worth more than £50,000 will pay between £250 and £6,000, depending on the size of the estate.

Opponents of the new probate fees have called them a “stealth tax” that will hit vulnerable bereaved families hard.

However, the government has said that due to the higher threshold for fee payment, an extra 25,000 families each year won’t pay anything at all. 80% of those who will need to pay will face fees of £750 or less, with a maximum of 0.5% taken from any estate.

“Fair and more progressive”

In a written announcement, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Justice Lucy Frazer MP said: “This new banded fee model represents a fair and more progressive way to pay for probate services compared to the current flat fee and reflects our commitment to protecting access to justice by ensuring we have a properly funded and resourced courts system.”

She also claimed that there were “several options” for families to fund the new higher fees and those who struggle to pay may be able to apply to the Lord Chancellor to remit the cost under exceptional circumstances.

“£10 million” in charitable income lost

As well as families, the change in probate fees could also have a significant impact on charities, which often rely heavily on the ‘legacy’ money that people leave to them in wills. The Institute of Legacy Management estimates that the higher charges could cost charities as much as £10 million a year in lost income.

Matthew Lagden, chief executive of the ILM, said that “The government’s own impact assessment acknowledges that the current fees cover the average costs of making a grant of probate, so we are clear that this is a stealth tax, which will be borne in part by charities,”

“We are also very concerned that the government’s impact assessment dismisses the costs to the charity sector as ‘not expected to be substantial’, when the £10m lost to this tax would fund vital services across England and Wales.”

What are probate fees for?

When someone dies, the executor of their will (or if there’s no will, their next of kin) needs to sort out their legal and financial affairs. Their money, property, assets and belongings all need to be passed on to the right people.

To access things like bank accounts, change property deeds, or transfer shares belonging to the person who has died, a grant of representation may be needed. This is an official document that states that a person has the legal right to settle the estate.

To set the grant up, the HM Courts and Tribunals Service charges a probate fee – so called because the kind of grant of representation you get is called a grant of probate if there’s a will. It’s called a letter of administration if not.

On average, 51% of estates in England and Wales can only be settled with a grant of representation.

How are the fees changing?

The current probate fee is a flat rate of £215 charged to DIY applicants, or £155 for those using professional help. It’s the same for estates of all sizes.

The new probate fees will be based on how much the estate is worth in total:

  • <£50,000: no fee
  • £50,000 – £300,000: £250
  • £300,000 – £500,000: £750
  • £500,000 – £1 million: £2,500
  • £1 million – £1.6 million: £4,000
  • £1.6 million – £2 million: £5,000
  • £2 million or more: £6,000

When will the higher probate fees come in?

The new fee structure will apply from April 2019 on.

What Do Customers Want From Funerals? 0

What do bereaved families want from funerals? Beyond CEO and Founder Ian Strang shares his take on why price transparency is just the beginning …

In a few weeks’ time, the CMA will publish a report concerning its enquiry into the funeral industry. The focus of this enquiry – and indeed, the focus of much of the media coverage around the industry over the last few years – has been cost. Are funeral costs going up or down? Are prices transparent? What can we do to help consumers with the cost of funerals? And so on*.

*The answers, by the way, are: flat for independents, up for chains; transparent for around 20% of the industry; and encourage people to use comparison websites.

These are worthy questions, and (disregarding my own self-interest here) it would be difficult for anyone to dispute the fact that Beyond has made huge strides in addressing the issue of price hikes and transparency over the last few years.

Because of our efforts, Dignity have been reduced to calling in the management consultants, and Co-op have (laughably) begun claiming to have started a price war (without actually publishing any pricing, but that’s a blog post for another time). The move towards fair transparent pricing throughout the industry is gradual, but likely now inevitable.

“Is it enough to simply make traditional funerals more affordable? I’d argue that it isn’t.”

But is it enough to simply make traditional funerals more affordable? Is that all that we can do to make bereaved families feel that we, as an industry, are meeting their needs? I’d argue that it isn’t.

When we talk about cost, and the public’s dissatisfaction with the cost of funerals, what we should really be talking about is value. Sure, people aren’t happy paying £5,000 for a traditional funeral with hearse and limousines – but in many cases, they wouldn’t be happy paying £500 for it either. It’s just not the service they’re looking for.

As an industry, we aren’t offering families a lot of choice. Yes, there are options out there if you dig around – you can find suppliers for anything from rockets that shoot your ashes into the air, to flammable Viking longboats. But these suppliers don’t (yet?) have the budget to advertise nationally, and many funeral directors don’t exactly push them.

“When you’re bereaved, feeling under pressure to organise a send-off – any send-off – and you know nothing about the industry, you’re not in any state to research different options. But families do want more choice.”

A lot of us in the business, intentionally or not, steer families towards a pretty standard format funeral. And when you’re bereaved, feeling under pressure to organise a send-off – any send-off – and you know nothing about the industry, you’re not in any state to research different options.

But families do want more choice, and we’re beginning to see some pushback.

Direct cremation is growing in popularity, for one. Often in a Sunday supplement or similar you’ll see articles about it: “Bury me in the garden”, “Stick me in a cardboard box”, etc. Many take a deliberately reactionary stance – rebelling against a status quo that dictates that a traditional funeral is the only “proper” option by shunning a funeral altogether.

That’s not surprising. It’s a lot like the dissatisfaction that many people feel with politics right now – “I don’t like any of the parties, so I won’t vote at all”. Direct cremation is also the least expensive of all the current options. But this recent increase in interest in direct cremation doesn’t mean that this is how the market will go or that it’s what people really want. Direct cremation is just the one of the few alternatives to a traditional funeral that’s easily available.

“No-one knows what bereaved families really want, because we haven’t been asking them. At least, not properly.”

So, what do bereaved families actually want, if not a traditional funeral?

Now, there’s no shortage of vocal factions promoting their own understanding of what families want, which generally correlates perfectly with something they are selling, whether that be service or a product.

But I’d argue that no-one knows what consumers want, because we, as an industry, haven’t been asking them. At least not properly, in a rigorous way.

To find out what the bereaved want, you need to ask them at the point of bereavement. You also need to offer them a wide variety of options, options which may not even exist yet. You also need to ask them in the exact same way each time, without the biases of different funeral directors, contexts or sales materials affecting their decision. And you need to ask a lot of people – at least 1,000 for any kind of statistical significance.

“It’s only now, at Beyond, that there are enough bereaved people going online and choosing funeral arrangements to create a data source set that’s robust enough to analyse. And analyse we do.”

It’s only now, at Beyond, that there are enough bereaved people going online and choosing funeral arrangements to create a data set that’s robust enough to analyse. And analyse we do. We constantly run tests across our website, much like any online business, to try and understand what users want.

Sometimes we invent a service and put it up online for a few weeks to see how much interest it gets. We might take it down again because no-one has clicked on it, but we still count that as a success, because the result is that we understand the consumer – bereaved people who need our help – better.

However, if people really like that service, we may look to develop it. This could be in tandem with our funeral director partners, or we might build an in-house offering, such as with estate administration. In that instance, our partners can then benefit by offering it to families themselves, increasing their service breadth.

“Over the next few years, the funeral industry is going to change more rapidly than anyone can imagine.”

Some of our partner funeral directors would rather we didn’t test. They see every new potential development on our website as a challenge to their business and post furiously about it on social media. This is short-sighted.

Over the next few years, the funeral industry is going to change more rapidly than anyone can imagine. It’s becoming ever-more-obvious that families are seeking different services, different ways to interact with funeral directors.

If individual funeral directors are not prepared to keep up with the pace of change, to invest in technology or partner with technology providers, to work in new ways, then they will stagnate. Because the chains certainly won’t sit still.

Dignity, despite previously being guilty of falling asleep at the golf buggy wheel, are now investing £50m in overhauling their business, introducing tablets, technology and home visits. The Co-op machine will likely respond in kind. And Dignity have the crematoria as an asset. You can see the benefit of that with their new “full-attended cremation service”, booked over the phone.

Will it be popular? I don’t know, but I’m impressed that they are testing new products for their customers. We’re interested to learn as well, so we’ve popped a similar product up on our website to find out whether this is the future or not.

“Funeral directors who embrace the testing, learning and development of new products to serve changing needs will flourish.”

For the first time in decades, we are starting to discover what consumers – bereaved families – really want. We need to be open to this journey of discovery and adaptable to the changes it will bring.

Those funeral directors that entrench solely around their traditional offerings and reliance on walk-ins for customer acquisition will slowly but surely die out. Those that embrace the testing, learning and development of new products to serve the changing needs of the bereaved will flourish.

Change is coming. Let’s embrace it, learn together and better serve the families who need our help.