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Posts Tagged ‘Pricing’

The fun economics story of the day is that Orbitz sometimes looks at your computer’s operating system to decide what hotel options to show you. Dana Mattioli breaks the story over at the Wall Street Journal:

Orbitz Worldwide Inc. has found that people who use Apple Inc.’s Mac computers spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel agency is starting to show them different, and sometimes costlier, travel options than Windows visitors see.

The Orbitz effort, which is in its early stages, demonstrates how tracking people’s online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information—in this case, the fact that customers are visiting Orbitz.com from a Mac—to start predicting their tastes and spending habits.

Orbitz executives confirmed that the company is experimenting with showing different hotel offers to Mac and PC visitors, but said the company isn’t showing the same room to different users at different prices. They also pointed out that users can opt to rank results by price.

Here are examples from the WSJ’s experiments:

The WSJ emphasizes that Mac users see higher-priced hotels. For example, Mattioli’s article is headlined: “On Orbitz, Mac Users Steered to Pricier Hotels.”

My question: Would you feel any different if, instead, the WSJ emphasized that Windows users are directed to lower-priced hotels? For example, Windows users are prompted about the affordable lodgings at the Travelodge in El Paso, Texas. (Full disclosure: I think I once stayed there.)

As Mattioli notes, it’s important to keep in mind that Orbitz isn’t offering different prices, it’s just deciding which hotels to list prominently. And your operating system is just one of many factors that go into this calculation. Others include deals (hotels offering deals move up the rankings), referring site (which can reveal a lot about your preferences), return visits (Orbitz learns your tastes), and location (folks from Greenwich, CT probably see more expensive hotels than those from El Paso).

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Companies often run into trouble when they offer a service at a zero price.

Not always, of course. Many all-you-can-eat buffets continue to thrive even though the marginal cost of the next chicken nugget is zero. And many content providers manage to stay in business by selling radio, TV, or display ads against the free content users enjoy.

But all too often, a zero price attracts bad customers and encourages excessive consumption. Marco Arment of Instapaper, for example, discovered that a zero price attracted “undesirable customers” for his app. And AT&T famously discovered that offering unlimited iPhone data could overwhelm its capacity.

Thanks to Ken Besinger of the Los Angeles Times, we now have another juicy example: the lifetime passes that American Airlines sold to a small group of customers:

There are frequent fliers, and then there are people like Steven Rothstein and Jacques Vroom.

Both men bought tickets that gave them unlimited first-class travel for life on American Airlines. It was almost like owning a fleet of private jets.

Passes in hand, Rothstein and Vroom flew for business. They flew for pleasure. They flew just because they liked being on planes. They bypassed long lines, booked backup itineraries in case the weather turned, and never worried about cancellation fees. Flight crews memorized their names and favorite meals.

Each had paid American more than $350,000 for an unlimited AAirpass and a companion ticket that allowed them to take someone along on their adventures. Both agree it was the  best purchase they ever made, one that completely redefined their lives. …

But all the miles they and 64 other unlimited AAirpass holders racked up went far beyond what American had expected. As its finances began deteriorating a few years ago, the carrier took a hard look at the AAirpass program.

Heavy users, including Vroom and Rothstein, were costing it millions of dollars in revenue, the airline concluded.

How did things go wrong? American Airlines miscalculated how pass holders would behave:

“We thought originally it would be something that firms would buy for top employees,” said Bob Crandall, American’s chairman and chief executive from 1985 to 1998. “It soon became apparent that the public was smarter than we were.”

In economic jargon, American fell victim to both adverse selection and moral hazard. What customer wants to buy an unlimited, lifetime pass? One who’s happy to spend a great deal of time flying about in first class with friends, family members, or a random person they just met at the gate. And how will they behave? As though first class seats are costless, easy to book, free to cancel, a great gift for friends and strangers, and even, in some cases, as a revenue source.

What happened next shouldn’t be surprising. First, the passes went through a death spiral with American raising the price in a vain effort to make them profitable. When last offered, a single pass cost $3 million and was purchased by a grand total of nobody. Second, American sicced its “revenue management executives” on the most flagrant of the frequent flyers. As a result, several had their passes revoked for misuse. And American faces some lawsuits that make one wonder whether it crossed the line in trying to rid itself of these outrageously expensive customers.

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Today’s exercise in everyday economics: Brian Stelter and Amy Chozick making the case that cable and satellite TV subscribers are paying a “sports tax”  (ht: Jennifer R.). Writing in the New York Times, they say:

Although “sports” never shows up as a line item on a cable or satellite bill, American television subscribers pay, on average, about $100 a year for sports programming — no matter how many games they watch. …

Publicly expressing the private sentiments of others, Greg Maffei, the chief executive of Liberty Media, recently called the monthly cost of the media empire ESPN a “tax on every American household.”

Patrick Flynn personifies the consumer challenge. He and his wife, who pay Comcast $170 a month for television, Internet and a home phone in Beaverton, Ore., are keenly aware that part of their bill benefits the sports leagues that charge networks ever-increasing amounts for the TV rights to games. Save for one regional sports channel, he said, none of them are worth it. …

But there are also millions of viewers like Russell Tibbits, of Dallas, who says, “If you eliminate sports channels from cable packages, I literally would not own a TV.”

Sports channels apparently make up a sizeable chunk of subscription costs. The authors report, for example, that ESPN earns about $4.69 monthly for each subscriber, while the next closest channel is TNT at a mere $1.16.

Given the limited number of channel bundles that cable and satellite services typically provide, the relatively high cost of sports channels creates the possibility of significant cross-subsidies. The sports-agnostic end up covering some of the costs of the sports-obsessed.

Of course, the reverse can also be true. Russell Tibbits may watch only sports channels, but he’s helping pay for AMC, Lifetime, and TNT, too.

For that reason, both sports fans and non-fans may prefer more choice about which channels they pay for. This “a la carte” discussion has been around for years, but Stelter and Chozick highlight a new factor. Changing technology make it make it easier for subscribers to get around current subscription models:

Soon, though, there may be an Internet alternative — something that was heresy until recently. Distributors like Dish Network are talking to channel owners about creating virtual cable providers that would stream channels over the Internet instead of traditional cables. That would break up the bundle of channels that subscribers have grudgingly accepted for years and allow subscribers who don’t like sports to avoid paying for them.

“They’re aggressively looking for ways to offer a lower-cost package of channels without sports,” said the chief executive of one such channel owner, who insisted on anonymity because the talks were confidential. “There may be a market in America, whether it’s 10 or 20 million people, that would be very happy to have 50 or 60 channels but not ESPN.”

By streaming the channels online, old distributors like Dish or new ones like Google could do an end run around the contractual commitments and market dynamics that effectively force them to carry sports channels now.

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Over at Quora, restaurateur Jonas M. Luster explains why he charges more for items at dinner than at lunch:

  • Lunch isn’t prepared and served by my A-team. Many times waiters and cooks have to prove themselves during lunch before being allowed on the dinner line. This means I pay less in payroll.
  • Lunch doesn’t usually serve a full menu. The menu is optimized for faster production and oftentimes smaller portioned. Smaller menu means less storage, smaller dishes mean less storage, and faster turnaround means less secondary storage costs (hot/warm holding, etc.)
  • Lunch diners spend an average of 45 minutes from entry to exit, dinner guests take over twice as long. This means faster turnaround during lunch hours, which either means more covers or less staff needed. Both saves me money.
  • Lunch guests don’t want/need candles and expensive bottles of water. They want food. We cater to this by dropping down to the bare bone of fine dining hospitality, removing fluff.

Last, but not least, lunch is a competitive market. We compete with in-house cafeterias, the dirty water hot dog cart, chain restaurants, and delivery businesses.

More answers here.

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Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a fun article about Air New Zealand’s latest innovation: Cuddle Class. As “the Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney describes it:

Steve Metz of Houston cuddled up with his wife Jackie and slept as they flew to New Zealand on a small futon. This flying couch wasn’t in a private jet or even a high-priced business-class cabin. They snuggled in coach.

“I don’t sleep well on planes, but I actually slept a good five hours,” said Mr. Metz, aboard a 13-hour Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to Auckland recently. “It’s no king-sized bed, but we made do.”

“Cuddle class” is an innovative seat design that has given coach passengers the first real opportunity to lie flat for sleep on long flights. To create the extra space, three seats in a row have fold-away armrests and a padded foot-rest panel that flips up and locks into place. Two passengers take up three seats and pay an average of half the cost of the third seat, typically an extra $500 to $800 for an overnight flight.

This sounds a fun innovation, but don’t get too excited:

The sky couch has limitations. To make it fit, Air New Zealand narrowed the aisles in the coach cabin. And since the couch is only about 4½-feet long, most people have to scrunch up to keep their feet from hanging into the aisle. In the middle of the night on a recent flight, it was impossible to walk through the coach cabin without bumping feet and legs hanging out of sky couches. And since it’s still the cheap-ticket cabin, two people have to cuddle closely in only 32 to 33 inches of width for each row, including the seat.

Now what does this have to do with economics, you might ask? Well, Air New Zealand faces a classic problem for any supplier who offers different levels of service. On the one hand, it wants to offer better service to attract more customers. On the other, it wants to make sure that some travelers still opt for higher-priced service. As McCartney puts its:

Air New Zealand doesn’t want to make the couch longer or wider—if it were better, it might start cannibalizing passengers from business-class or premium-economy seats.

So there you have it. Coach air travel isn’t unpleasant just because the airlines want to reduce costs. It’s unpleasant so that some flyers will pony up for better service.

P.S. For more economics of the air, see this post on the Tragedy of the Overhead Bin.

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The Highway Trust Fund will soon be broke. Gasoline tax revenues haven’t kept up with spending, and it’s likely that demands for new highway infrastructure will grow in the future.

Joseph Kile, head of the microeconomics studies division at the Congressional Budget Office, discussed various policy options to deal with this funding gap in his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. Most news coverage of Joe’s testimony emphasized his suggestion that taxes based on miles traveled, rather than gasoline consumption, might be a better way to finance America’s highways. After all, miles traveled is, along with weight, the primary driver of wear and tear on the roads. And it’s a decent proxy for the benefit that drivers get from having functioning roads.

That’s an interesting idea, but I’d like to highlight another important point that Joe made: the amount of infrastructure America should build depends very much on how we price it.

If a six-lane highway gets congested, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to build new lanes or lay out parallel roads.

We could charge congestion fees instead. That would discourage driving at peak times and thus speed traffic without new construction. That’s what London and Singapore famously do to limit traffic in their downtowns. And it’s something we should more here in the United States.

Joe reports estimates from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that congestion pricing could decrease highway spending needs by 25 to 33 percent:

The federal government spent about $43 billion on highway investment in 2010. To maintain the same quality of highway performance would require an average of $57 billion in annual federal spending in coming years, according to the FHWA. That price tag drops to only $38 billion, however, if we make good use of congestion pricing. Congestion pricing would thus save federal taxpayers almost $20 billion per year; state and local governments would save even more, since they pay for more than half the costs of these projects.

Congestion pricing can make our roadways work better, save Americans precious time, and reduce federal, state, and local budget pressures. That a great combination in this time of growing infrastructure needs and tightening budgets.

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Marco Arment is the brains behind one of my favorite apps. Instapaper allows you to store articles off the Web for later reading; very useful, for example, when I am surfing and come across an article I want to share with my students or use in a future blog post. And the editor of Instapaper periodically shares excellent reads that I might otherwise miss.

Instapaper is currently available for both the iPhone and the iPad for $4.99. As Marco discusses in his blog, however, the iPhone version has sometimes been available for free (but with ads).

Based on his pricing experiments, Marco has decided that free is a bad model. In part that’s because ads provide weak revenues, and it’s expensive to support two versions of the app. In part it’s because the free app cannibalizes sales from the paid version.

But that’s not all. Another problem is that the free version attracts “undesirable customers”:

Instapaper Free always had worse reviews in iTunes than the paid app. Part of this is that the paid app was better, of course, but a lot of the Free reviews were completely unreasonable.

Only people who buy the paid app — and therefore have no problem paying $5 for an app — can post reviews for it. That filters out a lot of the sorts of customers who will leave unreasonable, incomprehensible, or inflammatory reviews. (It also filters out many people likely to need a lot of support.)

I don’t need every customer. I’m primarily in the business of selling a product for money. How much effort do I really want to devote to satisfying people who are unable or extremely unlikely to pay for anything.

Free is a risky price because it allows people to get something without really thinking about whether they want it. That’s why health insurers insist you pay at least $5 to see your doc or get a prescription.  And it’s why DC’s nickel bag tax has been so effective in cutting use of plastic bags.

Kudos to Marco for sharing his results and calling on others to run similar experiments. But I won’t be one of them. Free continues to be the right price here in the blogosphere.

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The other day I noted that Amazon has been tussling with book publishers over the pricing of electronic books. Amazon would prefer a wholesale pricing model, in which it sets retail prices, rather than an agency pricing model, in which the publishers set the prices. One reason that Amazon would prefer the wholesale model is because it would allow it to sell e-books for less than publishers would prefer.

A similar pricing kerfuffle has arisen in the pricing of Chevy’s new plug-in hybrid, the Volt. Auto dealers operate under a wholesale pricing model–they buy the cars and then decide what to charge for them. In this case, however, early demand is so strong that auto retailers are charging more than Chevy (a unit of GM) would prefer. As noted on the Wheels blog over at the New York Times, some dealers are apparently charging $12,000 above the sticker price–$53,000 vs. $41,000–for scarce Volts.

This has miffed GM executives:

By law, General Motors cannot dictate vehicle pricing to its dealers. But Rob Peterson, a G.M. spokesman, noted in a telephone conversation that the company had impressed on sales managers to keep prices in line with the company’s suggested retail price.

“The dealers are independent, for better and, in very rare cases, for worse,” he said. “There are some who have moved in the opposite direction of our request. In response, what we’ve done is to urge customers who have contacted us about pricing discrepancies to shop around, because there are dealerships in their area that are honoring M.S.R.P.”

Bottom line: wholesalers are like Goldilocks, they want retail prices to be neither too hot nor too cold.

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A few months ago, I noted that Amazon and book publishers were tussling over the pricing of electronic books. Amazon had originally acquired e-books using a wholesale pricing model. It paid publishers a fixed price for each e-book it sold, and then decided what retail price to charge customers. Retailers usually sell products at a mark-up above the wholesale price–that’s how they cover their other costs and, if possible, make a profit. Amazon, however, often offered books at promotional prices below its costs. For example, it priced many new e-books at $9.99 even if it had to pay publishers $13.00 or more for them (often about half of the list price of a new hardback).

Several large publishers hated Amazon’s pricing strategy, fearing that it would ultimately reduce the perceived value of their product. They thus pressured Amazon to accept an agency pricing model for e-books. Under this approach, the publishers would retain ownership of the e-books and, most importantly, would set their retail prices. Amazon would then be compensated as an agent for providing the opportunity for the publishers to sell at retail. Under this approach, Amazon would receive 30% of each sale, and publishers would receive 70%.

The strange thing about these negotiations is that their initial effect appears to be lower publisher profits. As I noted in my earlier post:

Under the original system, Amazon paid the publishers $13.00 for each e-book. Under the new system, publishers would receive 70% of the retail price of an e-book. To net $13.00 per book, the publishers would thus have to set a price of about $18.50 per e-book, well above the norm for electronic books. Indeed, so far above the norm that it generally doesn’t happen. … [In addition]  publishers will sell fewer e-books because of the increase in retail prices. Through keen negotiating, the publishers have thus forced Amazon to (a) pay them less per book and (b) sell fewer of their books. Not something you see everyday.

Publishers presumably believe that the longer-term benefits of this strategy will more than offset lost profits in the near-term. What they may not have counted on, however, is the attention they are now getting from state antitrust officials such as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. As reported by the Wall Street Journal this morning, Blumenthal worries that the agency pricing model (which is also used by Apple) is limiting competition and thus harming consumers. And the WSJ says he’s got some compelling evidence on his side:

The agency model has generally resulted in higher prices for e-books, with many new titles priced at $12.99 and $14.99. Further, because the publishers set their own prices, those prices are identical at all websites where the titles are sold. Although Amazon continues to sell many e-books at $9.99 or less, it has opposed the agency model because it argues that lower prices, as exemplified by its promotion of $9.99 best sellers, has been a key factor in the surging e-book market.

It’s also interesting to note that Random House decided to stick with the wholesale model, and many of its titles are priced at $9.99 at Amazon.

Of course, higher prices on select books are not enough to demonstrate an antitrust problem. Publishers will likely argue that there is nothing intrinsically anticompetitive about agency pricing, which is used in many other industries. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that they are colluding on e-book pricing. Also, they may claim that their pricing strategy will allow more online retailers to enter the marketplace, thus providing more competition and more choice for consumers (albeit along non-price dimensions).

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Suppose you’ve got a successful business, selling your product to a diverse set of customers. Life is good. But you’d like to increase profits even more. What should you do?

One option from the MBA playbook (among many) is to think creatively about your pricing. Maybe there’s a way to distinguish your customers from each other and charge them different prices. Perhaps you can charge higher prices to some of your existing customers without driving them away or charge lower prices to folks who aren’t yet buying from you, or a combination of the two.

Businesses have myriad ways of doing this but, not surprisingly, the web has opened up new vistas. Saturday’s New York Times has an interesting article about the extent to which web coupons can be used to distinguish customers, track their behavior, and optimize marketing and pricing strategies (ht Diana):

The coupon efforts are nascent, but coupon companies say that when they get more data about how people are responding, they can make different offers to different consumers.

“Over time,” Mr. Treiber said, “we’ll be able to do much better profiling around certain I.P. addresses, to say, hey, this I.P. address is showing a proclivity for printing clothing apparel coupons and is really only responding to coupons greater than 20 percent off.”

That alarms some privacy advocates.

Companies can “offer you, perhaps, less desirable products than they offer me, or offer you the same product as they offer me but at a higher price,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which has asked the Federal Trade Commission for tighter rules on online advertising. “There really have been no rules set up for this ecosystem.”

The web thus offers new ways for companies to pursue the holy grail (from their point of view) of pricing: the ability to personalize prices for each potential customer.

Needless to say, this is sometimes bad news for consumers. After all, increased information can allow firms to jack up prices to consumers that the firms believe are unlikely to stop buying.

Less appreciated, however, is the fact that this can benefit consumers as well. For example, increased information can sometimes help firms offer lower prices to select customers who wouldn’t otherwise choose to purchase.

Without further information, it’s hard to know how such creative pricing will affect consumers in the aggregate. Except that the variety of prices will increase, making more of the marketplace look like the airline industry, in which it sometimes seems as though every seat was sold for a different price.

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