Feb 06 2009

Price Discrimination 101

YOUmoz | Price Discrimination in Pay Per Click AdvertisingSingle price vs. price discriminating monopolist

The article above gives a great introduction to and several examples of price discrimination among firms with market power. Read the excerpt below then discuss the questions that follow in your comments:

For any product or service, different people have different prices they are willing to pay. If you ever took an Economics course you surely remember the downward sloping demand curve, which is a graphical way of saying that you’ll get more buyers at a low price and fewer buyers at a high price. For a business that cannot price discriminate, this poses a problem. What price to offer?

There might be some consumers willing to pay 80, but twice as many consumers willing to pay 50. If you set the price at 50, you get more revenue, but the people who are willing to pay 80 are happy that your offering was 30 less than they were willing to pay. (Economists call this consumer surplus.) The ideal situation for the business would be to sell to some consumers at 80 and others (the price sensitive ones) at 50. Price discrimination – charging each consumer close to what he or she is willing to pay – increases revenue for the business.

Business strategists are forever trying to figure out ways to price discriminate. For commodities it can be difficult, but some markets are conducive to price discrimination. The classic example is the airline industry. Travelers have different itineraries and routes, and the airlines purposely impose complex pricing rules (e.g. cheaper if you stay over a Saturday) in order to price discriminate. Business travelers typically end up paying more than leisure travelers, and if you fly into or out of a small city you pay more than between large cities. On a flight with 100 passengers, it is possible that everyone paid a different price for the seat – 100 different prices for the same product. Consumers often resent these schemes, but economists love them.

Movie theaters price discriminate by charging lower admission for kids and seniors. Everyone gets the same product – a seat in the theater – but consumers that are more price sensitive pay less. Car dealers discriminate based on how much the customer haggles. Sellers of new products, especially consumer electronics, often price discriminate over time. When the iPhone was first released, consumers willing to pay $600 got to buy it. A couple months later, Apple lowered the price and a larger segment of the public was willing to buy. Apple could have charged $400 from the beginning, but then they would have lost all that revenue from the people willing to pay $600.

Buyers often feel like they are being played for chumps when they learn about price discrimination, but many economists absolutely are crazy about it and wish we had more price discrimination. Businesses are encouraged to make prices secret – create a fog of uncertainty – to get customers to accept prices offered to them. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at the California Institute of Technology, gave a talk about prices. He raves about Dell selling the same computer at different prices based on how the consumer identifies themselves at the website (small business, large business, home users).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who suffers as a result of price discrimination?
  2. Who benefits from price discrimination and how do they gain?
  3. Is society as a whole better or worse off when a monopolist is able to price discriminate? Explain…

About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

56 responses so far

56 Responses to “Price Discrimination 101”

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