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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business: Ch 08’ Category

Using incentives to affect throwaway behaviour

Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.

People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.

Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:

“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”

Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.

Articles
Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)

Questions

  1. If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
  2. Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
  3. How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
  4. If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
  5. How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
  6. Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
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A nudge in the right direction?

Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.

So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.

And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.

In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.

Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.

Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.

The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.

Articles
Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)

Publications of Behavioural Insights Team
Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
Blog BIT

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
  2. Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
  3. Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
  4. Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
  5. How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
  6. To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
  7. Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125″ was not as effective?
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Peak stuff

As most developed countries continue to experience low rates of economic growth, governments and central banks struggle to find means of stimulating aggregate demand. One explanation of sluggish demand is that people on higher incomes have enough of most things. They have reached ‘peak stuff’. As the Will Hutton article linked below states:

Around the developed world consumers seem to be losing their appetite for more. Even goods for which there once seemed insatiable demand seem to be losing their lustre. Last week, mighty Apple reported that in the last three months of 2015 global sales of the iPhone stagnated, while sales of iPads tumbled from 21m units in 2014 to 16m in the same three months of 2015. In the more prosaic parts of the economy – from cars to home furnishings – there are other warnings that demand is saturated.

People on lower incomes may still want more, but with income inequality growing in most countries, they don’t have the means of buying more. Indeed, a redistribution from rich to poor may be an effective means of increasing aggregate demand and stimulating economic growth.

It’s important to clarify what is meant by peak demand for such products. It is not being said that people will stop buying them – that future demand will be zero. People will continue to buy such products. In the case of durables, people will buy replacements when products such as furniture, fridges and cars wear out; or upgraded versions as new models of televisions, smartphones or, again, cars come out; or new music tracks or films as they become available for download, or clothing as new fashions appear in shops. In the case of foodstuffs, concerts, football matches and other consumables, they too will continue to be purchased. The point is, in the case of peak demand, the demand per period of time is not going to grow. And the more products there are that reach peak demand, the harder it will be for companies and economies to grow.

If peak demand has generally been reached, it is likely that the demand for material resources will also have peaked. Indeed, we could expect the demand for material resources to be declining as (a) there has also been an increase in the efficiency of production, so that a lower volume of material inputs is required to produce any given level of output and (b) there has been a general switch towards services and away from physical goods. The graph shows domestic material consumption in the UK in millions of metric tonnes. Domestic material consumption is defined as domestic extraction of resources minus exports of resources plus imports of resources. As you can see, domestic material consumption peaked in 2004.

But, although peak demand may have been reached in some markets, there are others where there is still the potential for growth. To understand this and identify where such markets may be, it is important to step back from simple notions of consumption to satisfy materialistic demand and focus on the choices people might make to increase their happiness or wellbeing or sense of self worth in society. Thus while we might have reached peak red meat, peak sugar, peak cars, peak furniture and even peak electronic gadgets, we have not reached peak demand for more satisfying experiences. The demand for education, health, social activities, environmental conservation and a range of fulfilling experiences may have considerable potential for growth.

There are business opportunities here, whether in the leisure industry, in building networks of like-minded people or in producing niche goods that satisfy the demands of people with specific interests. But without greater equality there may be many fewer business opportunities in the mass production industries producing standardised goods.

This is not a world in which goods and services are produced at scale as conventionally measured, but a honeycomb economy of niches and information networks whose new dynamics we barely understand, even if we have a better grasp of its values.

If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’ The Guardian, Will Hutton (31/1/16)
Steve Howard, Ikea Exec, Says The World Has Hit ‘Peak Stuff’ Huffington Post, Zi-Ann Lum (20/1/16)
We’ve hit peak home furnishings, says Ikea boss The Guardian, Sean Farrell (18/1/16)
Peak stuff: the ‘growth’ party is over. So what next? The Ecologist, Bennet Francis and Rupert Read (22/1/16)
Have we reached peak ‘stuff’? The Mancunion, Tristan Parsons (22/2/16)
Ikea senses room to grow amid ‘peak stuff’ Financial Times, Aliya Ram and Richard Milne (18/1/16)
Peak Stuff ifs insights, Janet Hontoir (21/2/16)
UK retail sales soar as Brits splash their cash on ‘fun stuff’ The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/2/16)
How less stuff could make us happier – and fix stagnation The Guardian, Katie Allen (26/4/16)

Questions

  1. What are the implications of countries reaching ‘peak stuff’ for (a) the marginal utility of mass produced goods; (b) the marginal propensity to consume and the multiplier?
  2. Give some examples of goods or services where peak stuff has not been reached.
  3. If peak stuff has only been reached for certain products, does this mean that there may still be considerable potential for stimulating aggregate demand without a redistribution of income?
  4. Would it be in the interests of companies such as Asda to make a unilateral decision to pay their workers more? Explain why or why not.
  5. Why may we be a long way from reaching peak demand for housing, even without a redistribution of income?
  6. Make out a case for and against tax cuts as a way of stimulating (a) economic growth and (b) a growth in wellbeing? Do your arguments depend on which taxes are cut? Explain.
  7. The Ecologist article states that “Attaining one-planet living will probably involve in due course achieving degrowth in countries such as ours: building down our economy to a safe level.” Could such an objective be achieved through a mixed market economy? If so, how? If not, why not?
  8. Does the Telegraph article suggest that peak stuff has not yet been reached as far as most UK consumers are concerned?
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When it’s a pain choosing the right painkiller

One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.

Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.

Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.

And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.

The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.

So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.

Articles
Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)

Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)

Questions

  1. Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
  2. What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
  3. How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
  4. Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
  5. If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
  6. What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
  7. Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’
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Do you mind if your vegetables are wonky?

This rather strange question has been central to a storm that has been brewing between various celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the supermarkets. Supermarkets say that consumers don’t want irregular shaped vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes. ‘Nonsense’, say their critics.

At the centre of the storm are the farmers, who find a large proportion of their vegetables are rejected by the supermarkets. And these are vegetables which are not damaged or bad – simply not of the required shape. Although these rejected vegetables have been described as ‘wonky’, in fact many are not wonky at all, but simply a little too large or too small, or too short or too long. Most of these vegetables are simply wasted – ploughed back into the ground, or at best used for animal feed.

And it’s not just shape; it’s colour too. Many producers of apples find a large proportion being rejected because they are too red or not red enough.

But do consumers really want standardised fruit vegetables? Are the supermarkets correct? Are they responding to demand? Or are they attempting to manipulate demand?

Supermarkets claim that they are just responding to what consumers want. Their critics say that they are setting ludicrously rigid cosmetic standards which are of little concern to consumers. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states:

‘It’s only when you see the process of selection on the farm, how it has been honed and intensified, it just looks mad. There are many factory line systems where you have people looking for faults on the production line; in this system you’re looking for the good ones.

What we’re asking supermarkets to do is to relax their cosmetic standards for the vegetables that all get bagged up and sold together. It’s about slipping a few more of the not-so-perfect ones into the bag.’

In return, consumers must be prepared to let the supermarkets know that they are against these cosmetic standards and are perfectly happy to buy slightly more irregular fruit and vegetables. Indeed, this is beginning to happen through social media. The pressure group 38 degrees has already taken up the cause.

But perhaps consumers ‘voting with their feet’ is what will change supermarkets’ behaviour. With the rise of small independent greengrocers, many from Eastern Europe, there is now intense competition in the fruit and vegetables market in many towns and cities. Perhaps supermarkets will be forced to sell slightly less cosmetically ‘perfect’ produce at a lower price to meet this competition.

Videos
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 1 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2/11/15)
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 2 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (9/11/15)

Articles
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rejects Morrisons’ ‘pathetic’ wonky veg trial The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (9/11/15)
Jamie Oliver leads drive to buy misshapen fruit and vegetables The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (1/1/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s war over wonky parsnips The Telegraph, Patrick Foster (30/10/15)
Asda extends ‘wonky’ fruit and veg range Resource, Edward Perchard (4/11/15)
Wearne’s last farmer shares memories and laments loss of farming community in Langport area Western Gazette, WGD Mumby (8/11/15)
Viewpoint: The rejected vegetables that aren’t even wonky BBC News Magazine (28/10/15)
Viewpoint: The supermarkets’ guilty secret about unsold food BBC News Magazine (6/11/15)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there is the market for fresh fruit and vegetables?
  2. Supermarkets are oligopsonists in the wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. What is the implication of this for (a) farmers; (b) consumers?
  3. Is there anything that (a) consumers and (b) the government can do to stop the waste of fruit and vegetables grown for supermarkets?
  4. How might supermarkets estimate the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables and its price elasticity?
  5. What can supermarkets do with unsold food? What incentives are there for supermarkets not to throw it away but to make good use of it?
  6. Could appropriate marketing persuade people to be less concerned about the appearance of fruit and vegetables? What form might this marketing take?
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The economic downs of Rugby

The 2015 Rugby World Cup is now well under-way, with record crowds, surprising results and some heartbreak. But what about the economic impact of the Rugby World Cup? Big sporting events bring in spectators (estimated to be 466,000), athletes and crucially they all spend money. But what happens when the host country doesn’t make it through? Unfortunately for all England fans out there, this is a very relevant question.

Go to the area surrounding a stadium on the day of a rugby world cup match and you will barely find a pub with any room to move. Spending on drinks and food in local pubs and restaurants on match days is extremely high and many hotels are at breaking point with reservations. Predictions were that there would be an increase in direct expenditure by international visitors of £869 million. A report by Ernst and Young looked at the Economic Impact of the Rugby World Cup 2015 and it provides detailed analysis of how such sporting events can generate benefits to the host nation. The highlights are:

£2.2 billion of output into the economy
£982 million of value added to national GDP
£85 million in infrastructure
41,000 jobs across the country
£1 billion of added value

But, what happens when you take out the host team? Suddenly we see less interest in the daily matches and the feel good spirit takes a dive. Of course, the other home teams are still around and English fans are being encouraged to support them, but commentators suggested that this early exit will have a significant economic impact. Alex Edmans from the London Business School suggests that when a host nation exits a rugby sporting event at an early stage, the pessimism can wipe 0.15% of the stock market the following day. This translates to around £3 billion for the UK. He noted:

“A defeat makes investors more negative about life in general. If England were to lose, they wouldn’t just be negative about the England rugby team but also about economic outcomes in general.”

Advertising revenues may also be hit, with a significant impact on ITV, who are showing all matches. With England out, the value of advertising slots has fallen and the advertising impact on some of the key England sponsors, such as O2, may be significant. However, English ticket holders may use this as an opportunity to make money, selling on their tickets to fans of surviving teams! The following articles and report from Ernst and Young consider this latest major sporting event that has come to the UK.

The Economic Impact of Rugby World Cup 2015 Ernst and Young 2014
An England Rugby World Cup exit could have knock-on effect for our stock market The Guardian, Sean Farrell (1/10/15)
Brands cheer on Rugby World Cup in face of England’s exit Financial Times, Malcolm Moore (4/10/15)
Rugby World Cup 2015: Early England exit could cost country £3bn International Business Times, Alfred Joyner (6/10/15)
Rugby World Cup brands play down commercial losses of England’s ‘lacklustre’ exit The Drum, Seb Joseph (5/10/15)

Questions

  1. What is an Economic Impact Analysis?
  2. How would you estimate the size of the multiplier effect of a sporting event, such as the Rugby World Cup?
  3. Following England’s exit, what happened to the stock market?
  4. How will media companies be affected by the Rugby World Cup and by England’s exit?
  5. Why do emotions affect the stock market?
  6. Do you think England’s exit will lead to greater spending in other parts of the country, such as Scotland and Wales, as England fans defect?
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Bridging The Gap

The Gap has been a fixture of UK High Streets for many years and has had both ups and downs. In a highly competitive market, it faces fierce rivals from other high street retailers and also from an increasingly important online presence. Same-shop sales for Gap fell in July by 7% and the brand is now finding itself in a tricky position.

Although the Gap does sell products at a variety of prices, even sales growth in its most affordable line was not sufficient to offset declines elsewhere. It’s not just the UK where this decline is observed, with 175 Gap specialty shops in America being shut down over the next year. This will inevitably mean job losses. So why is Gap struggling so much, after being such a popular brand?

Its competitors are arguably offering a very similar product, but at a lower price. Consumers, being increasingly aware of prices and having many more options to make price comparisons, are perhaps using this information to make better choices. If they don’t believe that they are getting something extra from paying a slightly higher price at Gap, then they’d prefer to get the same thing elsewhere, from somewhere like Forever 21 or H&M. Some also suggest that the product itself is out of date and with the world of high fashion being such an important part of life for many people, an out-of-date product is bad news. That, together with consumers finding more and more things that they can spend their money on, beyond clothes has led to a tricky position for the Gap.

A key part of maintaining a presence on high streets has been sales and special offers – this has been a key element in keeping customers coming, but it is certainly not a long term strategy. Research analysts have been investigating some of the key aspects of the Gap and various comments have been made, including:

“Uniformity is no longer cool… The trick now is convincing your customer that they’re getting something unique.” (Simeon Siegel), Nomura Securities.

“Of top priority is delivering more consistent and compelling product collections.” Kari Shellhorn, Gap spokeswomen.

“Whether it’s colour or print or it’s pattern, the Gap brand hasn’t been kept up to date … Until they have their product right, I think we’ll continue to see them have promotions.” Dana Telsey, Telsey Advisory Group.

The future of Gap is certainly in the balance and with an increasingly competitive market when it comes to retail, an effective strategy to maintain and increase its market share will be essential.

Why Gap is in a tight squeeze BBC News, Gianna Palmer (20/8/15)
Gap Inc sees some potential for next year but Q2 2015 remains weak Forbes, Investing, Trefis Team (24/8/15)

Questions

  1. What sort of figure would you expect Gap’s clothes to have and why?
  2. Into which market structure would you place the retail industry? What does this tell us about how a company such as Gap can hope to make profits?
  3. If you were advising Gap, what strategies would you propose as a means of boosting revenue and cutting costs?
  4. The BBC News article states that the fortunes of Gap have been hurt by a strong US dollar. Why may this be the case?
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What’s really on offer?

For years, the UK consumer organisation, Which?, has exposed misleading supermarket pricing practices. These include bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Claiming that these practices are still continuing, Which? has made a super-complaint (available to designated consumer bodies) to the competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Commenting on this action, Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said:

“Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves. Shoppers think they’re getting a bargain but in reality it’s impossible for any consumer to know if they’re genuinely getting a fair deal.

We’re saying enough is enough and using one of the most powerful legal weapons in our armoury to act on behalf of consumers by launching a super-complaint to the regulator. We want an end to misleading pricing tactics and for all retailers to use fair pricing that people can trust.”

The CMA will consider the issues raised under the super-complaint to establish whether any of them are significantly harming the interests of consumers. It will publish a response within 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015. The possible outcomes include:

recommending the quality and accessibility of information for consumers is improved
encouraging businesses in the market to self-regulate
making recommendations to government to change the legislation or public policy
taking competition or consumer enforcement action
instigating a market investigation or market study
a clean bill of health

Some 40% of groceries are sold on promotion. Supermarkets are well aware that consumers love to get a bargain and use promotions to persuade consumers to buy things they might not otherwise have done.

What is more, consumer rationality is bounded by the information and time available. People are often in a hurry when shopping; prices change frequently; people are often buying numerous low-value items; and they don’t know what competitors are charging. People may thus accept an offer as genuine and not spend time investigating whether it is so. Supermarkets know this and use all sorts of tactics to try to persuade people that they are indeed getting a bargain.

Videos
Supermarkets Face Super-Complaint On Pricing Sky News (21/4/15)
UK supermarkets face possible probe over pricing practices Reuters, Neil Maidment (21/4/15)
Which? launches ‘super-complaint’ against supermarkets BBC News, Stephanie McGovern (21/4/15)

Articles
UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which? The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (21/4/15)
Supermarkets face inquiry into ‘rip-offs’ The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
15 supermarket rip-offs that led to an inquiry The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
What does Which?’s supermarket pricing complaint mean for you? The Guardian (21/4/15)
Supermarkets hit back over Which? report on pricing Financial Times (21/4/15)

Press release
Which? ‘super-complains’ about misleading supermarket pricing practices Which? (21/4/15)

CMA case page
Groceries pricing super-complaint Competition and Markets Authority (21/4/15)

Questions

  1. Give examples of supermarket offers that are misleading.
  2. Why are supermarkets able to ‘get away with’ misleading offers?
  3. How can behavioural economics help to explain consumer behaviour in supermarkets?
  4. Identify some other super-complaints have been made to the CMA or its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading. What were the outcomes from the resulting investigations.
  5. What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?
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Ups and downs in the High Street

The typical UK high street is changing. Some analysts have been arguing for some time that high streets are dying, with shops unable to face the competition from large supermarkets and out-of-town malls. But it’s not all bad news for the high street: while some types of shop are disappearing, others are growing in number.

Part of the reason for this is the rise in online shopping; part is the longer-term effects of the recession. One consequence of this has been a shift in demand from large supermarkets (see the blog, Supermarket wars: a pricing race to the bottom). Many people are using local shops more, especially the deep discounters, but also the convenience stores of the big supermarket chains, such as Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local. Increasingly such stores are opening in shops and pubs that have closed down. As The Guardian article states:

The major supermarket chains are racing to open high street outlets as shoppers move away from the big weekly trek to out-of-town supermarkets to buying little, local and often.

Some types of shop are disappearing, such as video rental stores, photographic stores and travel agents. But other types of businesses are on the increase. In addition to convenience stores, these include cafés, coffee shops, bars, restaurants and takeaways; betting shops, gyms, hairdressers, phone shops and tattoo parlours. It seems that people are increasingly seeing their high streets as social places.

Then, reflecting the widening gap between rich and poor and the general desire of people to make their money go further, there has been a phenomenal rise in charity shops and discount stores, such as Poundland and Poundworld.

So what is the explanation? Part of it is a change in tastes and fashions, often reflecting changes in technology, such as the rise in the Internet, digital media, digital photography and smart phones. Part of it is a reflection of changes in incomes and income distribution. Part of it is a rise in highly competitive businesses, which challenge the previous incumbents.

But despite the health of some high streets, many others continue to struggle and the total number of high street stores across the UK is still declining.

What is clear is that the high street is likely to see many more changes. Some may die altogether, but others are likely to thrive if new businesses are sufficiently attracted to them or existing ones adapt to the changing market.

How the rise of tattoo parlours shows changing face of Britain’s high streets The Guardian, Zoe Wood and Sarah Butler (7/10/14)
The changing face of the British High Street: Tattoo parlours and convenience stores up, but video rental shops and travel agents down Mail Online, Dan Bloom (8/10/14)
High Street footfall struggles in August Fresh Business Thinking, Jonathan Davies (15/9/14)
Ghost town Britain: Internet shopping boom sees 16 high street stores close every day Mail Online, Sean Poulter (8/10/14)

Questions

  1. Which of the types of high street store are likely to have a high income elasticity of demand? How will this affect their future?
  2. What factors other than the types of shops and other businesses affect the viability of high streets?
  3. What advice would you give your local council if it was keen for high streets in its area to thrive?
  4. Why are many large superstores suffering a decline in sales? Are these causes likely to be temporary or long term?
  5. How are technological developments affecting high street sales?
  6. What significant changes in tastes/fashions are affecting the high street?
  7. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of high streets? Explain.
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‘Better Together’ Indeed

The Scottish debate revolved around a variety of issues and one of the key factors that added weight to the ‘No’ campaign was the idea of being British. But the concept of ‘Britishness’ is not just important to those who live here. It still appears to be a key signal of quality in foreign markets and it is something which foreign consumers are willing to pay a price for.

Barclays Corporate Banking has undertaken research into eight key export markets to determine the value of ‘Britain’. One of the key factors that boost demand for a product is quality and another is the idea of a brand. As quality improves and brands become more recognized, a product’s demand curve will begin to shift to the right, thus pushing up the market price. In other words, with higher quality and brand recognition, an individual’s willingness to pay rises. One brand that foreign consumers seem willing to pay a premium to purchase are those labelled ‘Made in Britain’.

The research indicates that 31% of customers in emerging markets have been prepared to and have purchased products that are from Britain, despite the higher price. Seeing the label ‘Made in Britain’ seems to send the signal of quality and this in turn creates a higher willingness to pay. Furthermore, this willingness to pay, while still good for Scottish, English and Welsh products, is higher for ‘British’ products, perhaps another indication of the truth behind the ‘Better together’ campaign.

The increase in willingness to pay between products with seemingly no country of origin and a British country of origin is 7% and this knowledge should give a confidence boost to the British export market. It should also indicate to exporters in Wales, Scotland and England that they are better to advertise as ‘Made in Britain’ than ‘Made in Wales, Scotland or England’. The expected boost from the 8 key emerging markets is around £2bn. The following articles consider the concept of ‘Brand Britain’.

Good news for exports as Brand Britain is revealed to be valuable concept Small Business, John Bromley (3/11/14)
Britain ‘best brand’ for Welsh exports, survey suggests BBC News (26/11/11)
Overseas consumers 64% more willing to pay premium for ‘Brand Britain’ Marketing Week, Sebastian Joseph (3/11/14)
Report flags up ‘British’ benefit The Courier, James Williamson (3/10/14)

Questions

  1. Using a diagram, illustrate the effect of a product’s being a well-known brand on its equilibrium price and quantity.
  2. Why is it that the relative willingness to pay a premium for British products is higher in developing countries than in developed countries?
  3. Using the concept of marginal utility theory, explain the impact of the ‘Made in Britain’ label.
  4. The BBC News article suggests, however, that some Welsh companies have not found the brand effect to be the case. What factors might explain this?
  5. To what extent are the concepts of consumer and producer surplus relevant here?
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