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How do producers charge different consumers different prices? September 29, 2015

Posted by tomflesher in Micro, Teaching.
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Price discrimination is the act of charging different consumers different prices based on how much they’re willing to pay. There are a few different forms of price discrimination, and it can be achieved different ways depending on how much information a seller has.

Haggling, or negotiating to find an exact willingness to pay, is an effective form of price discrimination for large purchases. For example, a car salesman can often start with a high price, and when the customer refuses, he can incrementally lower the price (or otherwise adjust the offer) until he find a deal that the buyer is just barely willing to accept. This has one huge advantage – it gets the most that the customer is willing to give up (or, in other words, it extracts the customer’s maximum willingness to pay). It is, however, very costly for a salesman. Just imagine if the salesman were to spend a whole day negotiating only to realize the buyer wasn’t willing to pay enough to cover the cost of the car. Then, the salesman loses the chance to make a sale at all that day. Since it’s costly, this method is most useful for high-priced items like cars and houses.

If you ask a consumer what he’s willing to pay, he’ll lowball you; haggling helps force the price (and the profit) up.

Direct segmentation allows a market to be broken up based on some visible characteristic. In the previous post, I discussed my father-in-law’s senior citizen discount on haircuts and how he pays less than I do for the same cut. He does this by asking for a senior citizen discount, which I’m not eligible for.

Direct segmentation involves breaking the market up into different groups and intentionally charging different prices to those different kinds of people. It works best when one group has a higher willingness to pay – so, since I’m not a college student, and not a senior citizen, my (relatively) high income means I don’t ask for a discount. Similarly, I pay a lower price to have my blazers dry-cleaned than my department chair does, even though her blazers are made up of a smaller amount of fabric. Dry-cleaners just automatically charge a higher price for a woman’s garment than a man’s, even if the garment is similar.

This sometimes leads to unpleasant outcomes. NPR did a story on a 12-year-old girl who had to pay a premium to play Temple Run as a female character; non-white-male characters were all in-app purchases that cost money.

Indirect segmentation is like direct segmentation, but requires the consumer to do some work to get the lower price. A good example of this would be a volume discount. I have a strong preference for Crayola An Du Septic dustless chalk. (I like its weight and erasability.) When I purchase chalk to use in the classroom, my buying options include paying about $3.50 for a single box or about $12 for a 12-box package. No sane person who isn’t a teacher has any use for 12 boxes of blackboard chalk, so I signal my price sensitivity by buying a larger amount at once.

Another way people reveal their types is by clipping coupons. A coupon is like a little badge that says “I’m cheap! Give me a lower price!” By doing a bit of extra work to signal my cheapness, I qualify myself for a lower price just as much as if I’d haggled with the guy behind the counter.

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Price Discrimination September 28, 2015

Posted by tomflesher in Micro, Teaching.
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I wear my hair short. Like, really short – it’s buzzed on the sides and scissor-cut on top, so that it’s low-maintenance, and I trim my own beard using a storebought clipper. My father-in-law does the same thing – except he pays a little bit less than I do, because he tells the barber he’s old and cheap. Why does that work?

A business, we assume, wants to make money. As such, it wants to sell its good at the highest price possible to each consumer. Consumers, though, want to spend as little as possible, to maximize the difference between their willingness to pay and the actual price they pay. (Economists call that difference consumer surplus.) Most of the time, it’s difficult to charge people different prices based on their willingness to pay. To do so requires three big elements.

First, the market has to be segmented. This means that consumers have to have different willingnesses to pay. Think about  a price-sensitive consumer like my father-in-law – he’s getting ready to retire. His wife is already retired. He needs to adjust to spending less money than he’s used to. A lot of his fellow senior citizens feel his pain. Meanwhile, I’m a young(ish) guy. I teach at a community college, I have no kids, and I have a long time before I retire (so my money has a lot of time to grow). I’m willing to pay a little bit more for a haircut than he is. In addition to senior citizens, college students are often given discounts just for being students.

Second, there needs to be some element of monopoly power. My barber isn’t a monopolist, because pure monopoly is rare, but I do go out of my way to go to a place where I have a good rapport with the barber. I have a guy who cuts my hair the way I like it, and I like the atmosphere at his shop. Plus, even though I could probably shop around to find a cheaper price if I went somewhere else, I couldn’t find a price that much cheaper. Haircuts have pretty standard prices around here. That’s what the monopoly power condition is intended to enforce – if I get angsty about not getting a cheap haircut, I don’t really have other options.

Finally, the good needs to be difficult to resell. If we were talking about an oil change on my car, I might send my father-in-law into the mechanic’s shop with my car to get the senior citizen discount on an oil change. When we have a family event planned, he buys the bagels because the local place gives him a deal just for being older. Or if my mother is looking to redo the bathroom, or kitchen – my father has friends at http://www.restorationusa.com/west-palm-beach/ who’ll give them a great discount on that as well. It’s impossible, though, to resell a haircut, so I can’t use his senior citizen discount to my advantage here. Baseball and hockey tickets often offer student rush specials where you have to (theoretically) show a student ID to get the discount. Enforcing that would ensure that people with high willingness to pay didn’t buy the cheap tickets in the nosebleed section, but the open secret is that the Mets don’t really care if you buy cheap tickets, as long as you buy tickets.

If those three conditions exist, then it’s possible for a seller to charge different people different prices. Economists call that price discrimination. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though – it means if you’re cheap, you can get a pretty good deal on some goods.

Elasticity and Demand March 18, 2015

Posted by tomflesher in Micro, Teaching.
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The price-elasticity of demand measures how sensitive consumers are to changes in price. There are two primary formulas for that. Most commonly, introductory courses will use \frac{\% \Delta Q^D}{\% \Delta P}, where \% \Delta means the percentage change. This means the numerator is \frac{\Delta Q^D}{Q_0}, where Q_0 is the original quantity demanded and \Delta Q^D is the change in quantity demanded. The denominator is \frac{\Delta P}{P_o}. Through the properties of fractions, that ratio is equal to \frac{\Delta Q^D}{\Delta P} \times \frac{P_0}{Q_o}, and a lot of students find that formula much easier to use.

A graph of demand and price-elasticity of demand

A graph of demand and price-elasticity of demand

Take note of the shape of that formula, and keep in mind the Law of Demand, which states that as price increases, quantity demanded decreases. At high prices, quantities are relatively low, meaning that a small change in price yields a relatively big change in quantity demanded. If the percentage change in quantity demanded is bigger than the percentage change in price, then demand is elastic and consumers are price-sensitive. On the other hand, at low prices, quantities are relatively high, meaning that a small change in price yields an even smaller change in quantity demanded. That means demand is inelastic.

This pattern of high prices corresponding to elastic demand and low prices corresponding to inelastic demand holds for most goods. At a very high price, firms can make a small change in price to try to encourage new buyers to buy their product, whereas at a very low price, firms can jiggle the price up a little bit to try to snap up some extra revenue without dissuading most of their buyers from purchasing the product.

A slightly more accurate formula for price-elasticity of demand is \frac{dQ}{dP} \times \frac{P}{Q}, which looks surprisingly like the previous formula but doesn’t depend on choosing an original value.

The graph in this post shows market demand Q^D = 1000 - P in blue and elasticity in orange. Note the high elasticity at high prices and low elasticity at low prices.

Elasticity (SPROING~!) March 17, 2015

Posted by tomflesher in Micro.
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When we think about elasticity in the real world, we often think about the properties of things like rubber bands or the waists of sweatpants. If a solid has high elasticity, that means it’s very sensitive to having forces applied to it – so while something like Silly Putty or latex is very elastic, other materials like steel or titanium are not. A small amount of force yields a lot of deformation for Silly Putty, but not much at all for steel.

Elasticity in economics works the same way. It measures how responsive one measurement is to a small change in some other measurement.

When economists say “elasticity” without any qualifiers, they typically mean the price-elasticity of demand, which measures how sensitive purchases are to small changes in price. Elasticity, \epsilon, is expressed as a ratio:

\epsilon = \frac{\% \Delta Q^D}{\% \Delta P}

where \% \Delta Q^D refers to the percentage change in quantity demanded1 (the actual change divided by the starting value) and \% \Delta P refers to the percentage change in price (again, the actual change in price divided by the starting value).2 This leads to three cases:

  1. \% \Delta Q^D > \% \Delta P – a small price change yields a big change in quantity demanded. This means that buyers of the good are price sensitive, and (equivalently) demand for the good is elastic. Note that in this case, \epsilon > 1.
  2. \% \Delta Q^D < \% \Delta P – a small price change yields an even smaller change in quantity demanded. This means that buyers of the good are not price sensitive, and demand for the good is inelastic. Here, \epsilon < 1.
  3. \% \Delta Q^D = \% \Delta P – a small price change yields exactly the same change in quantity demanded. The term for this type of demand is unit-elastic. When demand is unit-elastic, \epsilon = 1.

It’s tempting to treat elasticity as very complicated, when it has a really simply mathematical interpretation. It answers the question “Which change is bigger – price, or quantity?”

Also interesting is the question of why some goods are demanded elastically and some are demanded inelastically. Typically, goods with many alternatives are demanded elastically. Alternatives can come in many forms. Most commonly, they’ll show up as substitute goods, or goods which you can use instead of another good. For example, bread has many substitutes (naan, grits, cornbread, rice, tortillas, English muffins….), and so if the price of bread rose significantly, you’d see many people substituting away from using bread. However, there are other forms of alternatives, too. You may see elastic demand for goods that cost a large proportion of the buyers’ income or that can be purchased over a longer timescale. A college education is an example of both of these – a small change in the level of tuition can lead to big changes in the behavior of students, who will often take a year off to earn money.

Anything with few alternatives will typically be demanded inelastically. Salt is the classic example, because it has no alternatives – it’s necessary for flavoring food, allowing our bodies to function properly, and (in the case of iodized salt) preventing certain illnesses. However, anything that is addictive (like tobacco or heroin), necessary for many uses (like cell phone plans), or difficult to switch away from (it’s not like you can put diesel fuel in your gas-engine car!) will typically have inelastic demand.


1 Quantity demanded means the number of goods people are willing to buy at a certain price.
2 Usually one of these will be negative and the other positive, because of the Law of Demand; economists, ever economical with their notation, simply ignore this and use the absolute value.

Opportunities and What They Cost December 23, 2011

Posted by tomflesher in Finance, Micro, Teaching.
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One of the fundamental concepts in economics is that of opportunity cost. In order to understand opportunity cost, though, we need to take a step back and think about costs in a more general way.

The standard example goes like this: I like books, so I want to turn my passion into a job and open a bookstore. To do so, I need to rent a storefront and buy some inventory; for now, I’m going to run the bookstore myself. I’ll be open eight hours a day, so I’ll quit my current job at the box factory and do the bookstore job instead. Easy peasy, right? I even have $100,000 in the bank to get myself started.

Let’s look at the costs. The first thing to consider is the actual money I’m laying down to run this business. Say rent is $1,000 per month. If I don’t want to bother with discounting – and for now, I don’t – then that means I’ve spent $1,000 x 12 = $12,000 on rent this year. Then, imagine that in order to meet demand and still have a decent inventory, I need to spend $43,000 on books. That brings me up to $55,000 worth of cash that I’m laying out – my explicit costs, otherwise known as accounting costs, are $55,000.

But accounting costs don’t show that I had to give up my job at the box factory to do this, and I could have made $45,000. They also don’t account for the interest income I’m giving up by pulling my money out of the bank to live on it. Even if interest rates are only 1.25 APR (that’s annual percentage rate), I’m losing $1,250 in interest income. So, for simplicity (I don’t want to bother with compounding, either), let’s assume that in January I take out this year’s $45,000 in salary and keep it under my mattress. I buy my inventory and pay my rent. I’ve given up $1,250 in interest income and $45,000 in salary, so even though I haven’t laid out that cash, I have to count it as a cost. Accountants won’t write down what I gave up on a balance sheet, but my implicit costs, or opportunity costs, are $46,250.

Total costs are simple – just add implicit and explicit costs. My total costs for starting the business are $55,000 + $46,250 = $101,250.

The key to understanding opportunity cost is that it’s a measure of what you gave up to make a choice, and so it shows how much something is worth to you. If I offer you a free Pepsi, your opportunity cost is zero, so you might as well take it. If I offer you a Pepsi for your Dr. Pepper, we can infer two things:

  1. I value Dr. Pepper at least as much as Pepsi, and
  2. I can figure out how much you value Dr. Pepper, relatively, based on your decision. If you accept, then you must value Pepsi at least as much as Dr. Pepper; if not, you must value Dr. Pepper more (and would thus be rational, since Dr. Pepper is superior to Pepsi).

Opportunity cost is very useful for determining preferences. We’ll talk about that a little more later on. In the meantime, just remember this distinction:

  • Explicit costs are things you paid money for
  • Opportunity costs are how much you’d value your best alternative
  • Total costs are the sum of explicit and opportunity costs.