In September 2023, the Stonegate Group, the largest pub company in the UK with around 4,500 premises, announced that it was going to start increasing the pint of beer by 20p during busy periods. There was an immediate backlash on social media with many customers calling on people to boycott Stonegate’s pubs such as the Slug & Lettuce and Yates.
This announcement is an example of dynamic pricing, where firms with market power adjust prices relatively quickly in response to changing market conditions: i.e. to changes in demand and supply.
Traditionally, prices set by firms in most retail markets have been less flexible. They may eventually adjust to changing market conditions, but this could take weeks or even months. If a product proves to be popular on a particular day or time, firms have typically left the price unchanged with the item selling out and customers facing empty shelves. If the product is unpopular, then the firm is left with unsold stock.
One business that makes extensive use of dynamic pricing is Amazon. Prices for popular items on Amazon Marketplace change every 10 minutes and can fluctuate by more than 20 per cent in just one hour.
Conditions for dynamic pricing to operate
The Amazon example helps to illustrate the conditions that must be in place for a firm to implement dynamic pricing successfully. These include:
- The capacity to collect and process large amounts of accurate real-time data on the demand for and supply of particular items i.e. the number of sales or the interest in the product.
- The ability to adjust prices in a timely manner in response to changing market conditions indicated by the data.
- Effectively communicating the potential advantages of the pricing strategy to consumers.
The last point is an interesting one. As the Stonegate example illustrates, consumers tend to dislike dynamic pricing, especially when price rises reflect increases in demand. A previous article on this website discussed the unpopularity of dynamic pricing amongst fans in the ticket market for live musical events.
The precise reason for the increase in demand, can also have an impact on consumer attitudes. For example, following a mass shooting at a subway station in New York in April 2022, the authorities shut down the underground system. This led to a surge in demand for taxis and this was picked up by the algorithm/software used by Uber’s dynamic pricing system. Fares for Uber cars began to rise rapidly, and people started to post complaints on social media. Uber responded by disabling the dynamic pricing system and capping prices across the city. It also announced that it would refund customers who were charged higher prices after the subway system shut down.
There is a danger for businesses that if they fail to communicate the policy effectively, annoyed customers may respond by shopping elsewhere. However, if it is implemented successfully then it can help businesses to increase their revenue and may also have some advantages for consumers.
The growing popularity of dynamic pricing
It has been widely used in airline and hotel industries for many years. Robert Cross, who chairs a revenue management company predicts that ‘It will eventually be everywhere’.
More businesses in the UK appear to be using dynamic pricing. In a consumer confidence survey undertaken for Barclays in September 2023, 47 per cent of the respondents had noticed more examples of companies raising prices for goods/services in response to higher demand at peak times.
It has traditionally been more difficult for bricks-and-mortar retailers to implement dynamic pricing because of the costs of continually changing prices (so-called ‘menu costs’). However, this might change with the increasing use of electronic shelf labels.
It will be interesting to see if dynamic pricing becomes more widespread in the future or whether opposition from consumers limits its use.
- Explain the difference between surge and dynamic pricing.
- Using a diagram, explain how dynamic pricing can increase a firm’s revenue.
- Discuss both the advantages and disadvantages for consumers of firms using dynamic pricing.
- How might dynamic pricing influence consumer behaviour if it alters their expectations about future price changes.
- There is some evidence that the use of dynamic pricing is less unpopular amongst 18–24-year-olds than other age groups. Suggest some possible reasons why this might be the case.
- Using the concept of loss aversion, consider some different ways that a business could present a new dynamic pricing policy to its customers.
In a recent blog post on this site about the Microsoft/ Activision Blizzard merger, the European Commission had just reached a decision to approve the merger subject to remedies, but the investigations in the USA and UK were still ongoing. Since then, the merger has been approved by competition authorities around the world, including in the USA and UK, and thus the merger has gone through.
However, there were some differences in the way the case unfolded under the regulation of these three competition authorities.
The European Commission’s (EC) decision
The European Commission (EC) was the first to give the merger the green light. The EC’s in-depth investigation revealed concerns about the market for the distribution of games via cloud game streaming services. In particular, the concern was related to the possibility that Microsoft might make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud game streaming service (Game Pass Ultimate) and restrict access from competing cloud game streaming providers.
The EC argued that this in turn could strengthen Microsoft’s position in the market for PC operating systems, as Microsoft may have an incentive to limit or reduce the quality of the streaming of Activision’s games on PC’s which do not use the Windows operating system.
Thus, while the merger was approved, this was subject to remedies. These remedies included 10-year licensing commitments from Microsoft, as outlined in the EC’s press release:
These licenses will ensure that gamers that have purchased one or more Activision games on a PC or console store, or that have subscribed to a multi-game subscription service that includes Activision games, have the right to stream those games with any cloud game streaming service of their choice and play them on any device using any operating system.
This type of remedy is called a behavioural remedy and often requires the merging firms to commit to taking particular actions post-merger. Unlike structural remedies (which may for example, require the merging firms to sell off an entire business unit), behavioural remedies often require monitoring and enforcement by competition authorities. The EC argued that the deal, with these behavioural remedies, could strengthen competition in the market for cloud gaming.
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decision
The FTC, in the USA, had similar concerns to those of the EC related to the cloud gaming market. These were outlined in the FTC’s press release:
[The deal] would enable Microsoft to suppress competitors to its Xbox gaming consoles and its rapidly growing subscription content and cloud-gaming business.
The FTC also argued that when Microsoft had previously acquired gaming content, it had made this content exclusive to Microsoft consoles. This could result in higher prices, and reduced quality, choice and innovation. To this end, the FTC appealed in an attempt to block the deal, but the Court ruled in favour of the deal going ahead.
During this time, Microsoft announced that it had committed to keeping Call of Duty on Sony’s PlayStation after the merger, and this likely contributed towards the court’s decision. Hence, the FTC was unsuccessful in its attempt to halt the merger.
The Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) decision
The final hurdle remaining for Microsoft, was the CMA’s approval. As outlined in a previous blog post on this site, the CMA’s phase 2 investigation revealed similar concerns about the supply of cloud gaming services (amongst concerns related to the market for the supply of console gaming services, which were later dispelled), and whilst Microsoft offered some commitments similar to those accepted by the EC, the CMA did not deem these to be sufficient to address its concerns and thus prohibited the merger.
The CMA’s published remedies guidance suggests that the regulator has a preference for structural remedies over behavioural remedies. One of the reasons for this is because of the requirement to monitor and enforce the commitments, and this therefore formed part of the CMA’s reasons for not accepting the remedies. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft appealed this decision to the UK’s Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT), probably partly driven by the fact that the EC accepted similar remedies to those rejected by the CMA. However, Microsoft and the CMA agreed that if the appeal was paused, Microsoft could propose a new deal.
The new deal: did the CMA make a U-turn?
In August 2023, Microsoft submitted a new restructured deal for the CMA to review. As described by the Chief Executive of the CMA, this deal was “substantially different from what was put on the table previously” and was therefore investigated as a separate merger case under the CMA’s phase 1 processes.
The new deal meant that Microsoft would no longer be purchasing the cloud streaming rights held by Activision. Instead, the cloud streaming rights would be sold to an independent third-party game publisher – Ubisoft. This means that Microsoft will not be in control of the cloud gaming rights for Activision’s gaming content (outside of the EEA), and therefore will not be able to restrict its competitors’ access to Activision’s games, which was one of the main concerns outlined by the CMA based on the initial merger proposal. The new deal also opens up the possibility that Activision’s games will be made available on cloud gaming services that run on a non-Windows operating system.
On 13 October, the CMA approved this deal, subject to the cloud gaming rights being sold to Ubisoft, and some subsequent commitments from Microsoft in relation to its relationship with Ubisoft post-merger, as outlined in the CMA’s final report. However, the Chief Executive of the CMA has emphasised that they are unhappy with the way that Microsoft dealt with negotiating the approval of the merger:
But businesses and their advisors should be in no doubt that the tactics employed by Microsoft are no way to engage with the CMA. Microsoft had the chance to restructure during our initial investigation but instead continued to insist on a package of measures that we told them simply wouldn’t work. Dragging out proceedings in this way only wastes time and money.
What’s next in big tech?
While the merger deal has now gone through, the FTC has recently re-opened its case against Microsoft, which will continue to unfold over the next couple of months until December when the case will appear in Court. This means it is possible that the FTC could attempt to undo the merger, though this would be challenging.
In the tech market more broadly, the CMA has recently launched a market investigation into cloud services. While the focus of this blog post was on cloud gaming, cloud services are now increasingly being used by many businesses. The CMA’s issues statement suggests that a key focus of its investigation will be on the ability for customers to switch between cloud service providers. Microsoft is one of the largest providers of cloud services in the UK, and therefore it is inevitable that it will be under scrutiny. Given all three regulators’ recent efforts to ‘crackdown’ on big tech, this is just one of a series of cases that will be interesting to see unfold.
Competition authorities documentation
- Discuss the effectiveness of behavioural remedies vs structural remedies for a merger.
- Why might the competition authorities have been concerned about the possibility of Microsoft making Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud game streaming service? Is exclusive dealing always anti-competitive?
- Why was the transfer of the cloud game streaming rights to Ubisoft seen as a suitable remedy?
We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?
In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.
As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.
The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.
The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.
This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.
Monetary policy response
Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?
One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.
If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.
Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.
Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.
Blogs on this site
Information and data
- How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
- If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
- In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
- With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
- If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
- Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?
The distinction between nominal and real values in one of the ‘threshold concepts’ in economics. These are concepts that are fundamental to a discipline and which occur again and again. The distinction between nominal and real values is particularly important when interpreting and analysing data. We show its importance here when analysing the latest retail sales data from the Office for National Statistics.
Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear, and household goods (see). They involve sales by retailers directly to end consumers whether in store or online. The retail sales index for Great Britain is based on a monthly survey of around 5000 retailers across England, Scotland and Wales and is thought to capture around 93 per cent of turnover in the sector.
Estimates of retail sales are published in index form. There are two indices published by the ONS: a value and volume measure. The value index reflects the total turnover of business, while the volume index adjusts the value index for price changes. Hence, the value estimates are nominal, while the volume estimates are real. The key point here is that the nominal estimates reflect both price and volume changes, whereas the real estimates adjust for price movements to capture only volume changes.
The headline ONS figures for September 2023 showed a 0.9 per cent volume fall in the volume of retail sales, following a 0.4 per cent rise in August. In value terms, September saw a 0.2 per cent fall in retail sales following a 0.9 per cent rise in August. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the unusually warm weather this September helped to depress expenditure on clothes. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.
Chart 1 plots the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this and the other two charts). In value terms, retail sales spending increased by 165 per cent, whereas in volume terms, spending increased by 73 per cent. This difference is expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes. The chart is notable for capturing two periods where the volume of retail spending ceased to grow. The first of these is following the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The period from 2008 to 2013 saw the volume of retail sales stagnate and flatline with a recovery in volumes only really starting to take hold in 2014. Yet in nominal terms retail sales grew by around 16 per cent.
The second of the two periods is the decline in the volume of retail sales from 2021. To help illustrate this more clearly, Chart 2 zooms in on retail sales over the past five years or so. We can see a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Between April 2021 and September 2023, the volume of retail sales fell by 11%. In contrast, the value of retail sales increased by 8.4%. The impact of the inflationary shock and the consequent cost-of-living crisis that emerged from 2021 is therefore demonstrated starkly by the chart, not least the severe drag that it has had on the volume of retail spending. This has meant that the aggregate volume of retail sales in September 2023 was only back to the levels of mid-2018.
Finally, Chart 3 shows the patterns in the volumes of retailing by four categories since 2018: specifically, food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail, and automotive fuel. The largest fall in the volume of retail sales has been experienced by non-store retailing – largely online retailing. From its peak in December 2021, non-store retail sales decreased by 18% up to September 2023. While this needs to be set in the context of the volume of non-store retail purchases being 15% higher than in February 2020 before the pandemic lockdowns were introduced, it is nonetheless indicative of the pressures facing online retailers.
Importantly, the final chart shows that the pressures in retailing are widespread. Spending volumes on automotive fuels, and in food and non-food stores are all below 2019 levels. The likelihood is that these pressures will persist for some time to come. This inevitably has potential implications for retailers and, of course, for those that work in the sector.
- Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
- In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
- Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 3.
- Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to the macroeconomic environment.
- Conduct a survey of recent media reports to prepare a briefing discussing examples of retailers who have struggled or thrived in the recent economic environment.
- What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
- Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.
Have you ever wondered how your job affects your happiness? We all know that not all jobs are created equal. Some are awesome, while others … not so much. Well, it turns out that employment status and the type of work you do can have a big impact on how you feel – especially in developing countries where labour markets are usually tighter and switching between jobs can be more difficult.
A recent study by Carmichael, Darko and Vasilakos (2021) uses survey data from Ethiopia, Peru, India and Vietnam to answer this very question. The study found that the quality of work is a big deal when it comes to how young people feel. Not all jobs are ‘good jobs’ that automatically make you feel great. Although your wellbeing is likely to be higher when you’re in employment than when you’re not, there are certain job attributes that can push that ‘employment premium’ up or down. This is especially important to understand in countries like many in sub-Saharan Africa, where there aren’t many formal jobs, and people often end up overqualified for what they do.
What job attributes lead to higher wellbeing?
What then are the job attributes that are correlated with higher levels of wellbeing? The first is money: Okay, we know money can’t buy happiness, but it can certainly make life easier. We were therefore hardly surprised to find a positive and statistically significant association between hourly earnings and wellbeing.
We were also not surprised to find that a ‘poor working environment’ has a strong and highly significant negative effect on wellbeing.
Finally, feeling proud of your work is also found to be a strongly significant determinant of your wellbeing. After all, people tend to excel in things they like doing, which is probably part of the ‘transmission mechanism’ between ‘work pride’ and ‘subjective wellbeing’.
Which one of these attributes did you think had the greatest effect on wellbeing? Let me guess, many of you will say ‘earnings’. But then you would be wrong. Earnings were indeed positively associated with wellbeing and statistically significant at just about the 10% level, whereas work pride was very strongly statistically significant at the 1% level and had an effect on wellbeing that was four times greater than hourly earnings.
Putting yourself in a poor working environment on the other hand would reduce your wellbeing by almost twice as much as the earnings coefficient.
What does all this mean for policy-makers? If we want to make life better for young people in low-income countries, we need to tackle the problems from multiple angles.
First, young people need to be helped to get the skills they need for the job market. This can be done through things like training programmes and apprenticeships. However, not all of these programmes are created equal. Some have great results, and others not so much.
But that’s not the whole story. In many countries, there’s a massive informal job market. It’s a place where people work but often don’t have the rights or protections that formal employees do. So, even if young people get trained, they might not find the ‘good’ jobs they’re hoping for.
Changes also need to be made on a much bigger scale. This often includes decentralising public investment to include rural areas, improving infrastructure, and encouraging private investment. Strengthening labour market rules and social protection can help too, by making sure that work is safe and fair.
In a nutshell, where you work and what kind of work you do can make a big difference to how you feel.
If policy-makers want to help young people in low-income countries, they need both to give them the skills they require and to create better job opportunities. But policy-makers also need to make bigger changes to the way things work, like boosting production and making sure jobs are safe and fair.
In the end, it’s about making life better for young people around the world. Let’s keep working on it!
- Well-being and employment of young people in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam: Is work enough?
Development Policy Review, Fiona Carmichael, Christian K. Darko and Nicholas Vasilakos (18/5/21)
- The search for ‘meaning’ at work
BBC Worklife, Kate Morgan (7/9/22)
- Job Satisfaction Is Rising: What’s Behind The Surprising Tend
Forbes, Tracy Brower (4/6/23)
- Young workers are embracing AI, job satisfaction rising: 2023 Young Generation in Tech report
Silicon Canals (4/10/23)
- ‘These jobs can be respectable too’: Why youths in China are abandoning white-collar jobs for ‘light labor’
CNBC, Goh Chiew Tong (6/6/23)
- Does Work Make You Happy? Evidence from the World Happiness Report
Harvard Business Review, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and George Ward (20/3/17)
- Worker well-being is in demand as organizational culture shifts
American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology, Heather Stringer (1/1/23)
- Understanding children’s work and youth employment outcomes in Indonesia
Understanding Children’s Work (UCW) Programme, Villa Aldobrandini and V. Panisperna (June 2012)
- Where are We with Young People’s Wellbeing? Evidence from Nigerian Demographic and Health Surveys 2003–2013
Social Indicators Research, pp.803–33, Boniface Ayanbekongshie Ushie and Ekerette Emmanuel Udoh (November 2016)
- Employment Status and Well-Being Among Young Individuals. Why Do We Observe Cross-Country Differences?
Social Indicators Research, Dominik Buttler (29/6/22)
- Employment Mismatches Drive Expectational Earnings Errors among Mozambican Graduates
The World Bank Economic Review, Sam Jones, Ricardo Santos and Gimelgo Xirinda (27/7/23)
- Youth Employment and Skills Development in The Gambia
World Bank Working Paper 217, Nathalie Lahire, Richard Johanson and Ryoko Tomita Wilcox (2011)
- How does the quality of work impact the happiness and wellbeing of young people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), and why is this significant in the context of job opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa?
- What are some potential solutions and strategies discussed in the article for improving the wellbeing of young people in LMICs, particularly in the context of employment and job opportunities?
- Have you ever experienced a job that significantly (positively or negatively) impacted your wellbeing or happiness? Reflect on your experience and how it influenced your overall life satisfaction?
- How is AI likely to affect the wellbeing of young professional workers?
- How is the pandemic likely to have affected job satisfaction?