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3.8 Price Discrimination

In the ice cream bar summer business in Chapter 2 "Key Measures and Relationships", we presumed that the student operators would decide on a price to charge. All ice cream bars would be sold at that price. We reasoned that more ice cream bars could be sold as the price is decreased. If the students decide to charge $1.50 per ice cream bar, a potential customer will decide if the utility of the ice cream bar is sufficiently high for them to be willing to give up $1.50 of their wealth. If not, they will walk away without making a purchase. If the students instead decide to charge $1.80 per ice cream bar, the demand curve indicated that 6000 fewer unit purchases would occur, meaning 6000 of those purchases were not worth $1.80 to the purchasers. However, some of the customers would have been willing to pay over $2.00, and fewer even more than $2.50 or $3.00.

When all consumers pay the same price, some of them get a kind of surplus because they would have been willing to pay more for the ice cream bar. Sellers may wish they were able to charge customers the maximum amount they are willing to pay, which would result in more revenue and no added cost. In economics, the term for charging different prices to different customers is called price discriminationCharging different prices to different customers so that more revenue is generated with no added cost.. Economists have actually defined multiple types of price discrimination, called first-degree price discrimination, second-degree price discrimination, and third-degree price discrimination.

First-degree price discriminationAn attempt by a seller to leave the price unannounced in advance and charge each customer the highest price he or she would be willing to pay for the purchase. is an attempt by the seller to leave the price unannounced in advance and charge each customer the highest price they would be willing to pay for the purchase. If perfectly executed, this would meet the ideal of getting the greatest revenue possible from sales. Unfortunately, anything close to perfect execution of first-degree price discrimination is unrealistic because customers have an incentive to not reveal how much they would be willing to pay and instead try to pay as little as possible. Attempts to sell using first-degree price discrimination may be illegal as well, as it may be deemed discriminatory in the legal sense of the word.

Some commercial dealings resemble attempts at first-degree price discrimination. Sometimes there is no set price, and the buyer and seller negotiate a price. This is the customary way that automobiles have been sold in the United States. The process may start with a preannounced price, but one that is usually higher than the seller actually expects to receive. This falls short of pure first-degree discrimination because the buyer is probably able to negotiate down from the most he would pay, possibly quite a bit if the buyer is a good negotiator. In addition, there is time and effort expended in the negotiating, which is a kind of cost to the transaction that the buyer may see as part of the purchase cost and the seller may see as an added cost of business.

Goods and services are sometimes sold or purchased via an auction. This is usually an effective means when the seller has a limited number of items to sell. Run properly, an auction will distinguish those willing to pay more, although it probably will not manage to get a bid as high as the maximum the buyer would have paid. Again, the cost of operating an auction is expensive in comparison to selling using a set, preannounced price.

Businesses that sell a product that is in demand with no good substitute available will sometimes employ a sliding price, where they begin selling at a very high price that is attractive to relatively few consumers. After a time when presumably those high-value customers make their purchases, the business will drop the price somewhat and attract purchases from another group that was willing pay slightly less than the first group. Successive price drops can continue until it would be unprofitable for the seller to drop the price any lower. Sliding prices are sometimes used with products that employ new technologies, when the initial seller has the market to itself, at least for a while, and offers a got-to-have item for some customers. Of course, although these eager customers may be willing to pay more, they may be aware of this pricing strategy and delay their purchase, so this approach will not extract the full value customers would have been willing to pay.

When goods and services are sold according to a preannounced price, the customary arrangement is that the charge for multiple items is the price times the number of items. This is called linear pricingThe sale of goods and services for a preannounced price such that the charge for multiple items is the price times the number of items.. However, customers differ in the volume they are interested in purchasing. A business may benefit by offering different prices to those who purchase in larger volumes because either they can increase their profit with the increased volume sales or their costs per unit decrease when items are purchased in volume. Businesses can create alternative pricing methods that distinguish high-volume buyers from low-volume buyers. This is second-degree price discriminationThe sale of goods and services for one price for low-volume purchases and a different price for high-volume purchases; charging a two-part price in the form of a flat charge to be a customer and a per unit charge based on how much is consumed..

A donut shop might offer a free donut to anyone who purchases a whole dozen because the purchase requires less clerk time per donut sold and increases how many donuts get purchased. However, since only those who buy at least a dozen donuts get a free donut, the discount is limited to those people and not the customer who purchases just a donut or two. This would be second-degree price discrimination.

Another nonlinear pricing scheme to employ second-degree discrimination is a two-part price. A customer pays a flat charge to be a customer and then pays a per unit charge based on how much they consume. Some services like telephone service are primarily fixed cost and have a very small per unit variable cost. By charging telephone customers a flat monthly fee and low per unit charge, they encourage more use of the service than if they simply charged a linear price per unit and see more revenue in relation to costs. Membership stores that require customers to pay an entry fee before being allowed to shop, but offer lower prices than regular stores for purchased items, is another example of a two-part pricing.

Third-degree price discriminationDifferential pricing offered to different groups of customers. is differential pricing to different groups of customers. One justification for this practice is that producing goods and services for sale to one identifiable group of customers is less than the cost of sales to another group of customers. For example, a publisher of music or books may be able to sell a music album or a book in electronic form for less cost than a physical form like a compact disc or printed text.

A second justification for charging different prices to different groups of customers is that one group may be more sensitive to price than the other group. Earlier we discussed elasticity of demand. If we separated the demand for the two groups into separate demand curves, at any given price the more price sensitive group will have stronger negative price elasticity. Sellers are able to increase economic profit by charging a lower price to the price-elastic group and a higher price to the more price-inelastic group. As an example, 25 years ago music was sold in two formats: cassette tapes and compact discs. The production cost of a cassette tape was roughly equivalent to a compact disc, but music on compact discs often retailed at a higher price because it was perceived that customers of compact discs were more demanding of quality and more price inelastic.

To apply third-degree price discrimination, the seller must be able to clearly identify and sort the customer by a salient characteristic. For example, a cable provider may be aware that existing subscribers are price inelastic relative to other households that are not existing customers. The cable provider will typically charge reduced rates to attract new customers and is able to execute the price discrimination because it knows whether a customer is an existing customer or not. A sports clothing retailer may know that fans of a team are more price inelastic in the purchase of apparel displaying the name or mascot of that team than customers who are not fans. However, if the clothing retailer were to attempt to charge differential prices, the customers who are fans would have the incentive to disguise that characteristic, so third-degree price discrimination would not work well in this case.