Tag: fixed costs

Market trading has existed for centuries and in many respects it hasn’t changed very much. One thing that has developed is the means of exchange. Goods used to be traded for other goods – for example 1 pig for 4 chickens! But then money was developed as a means of exchange and then came cheques and plastic.

However, for many market traders, accepting credit and debit cards is relatively costly. It involves paying a monthly contract, which for many traders is simply not worthwhile, based on the quantity and value of the transactions. But, for many customers using debit or credit cards is the preferred method of payment and the fact that some traders only accept cash can be a deterrent to them making purchases and this therefore reduces the sales of the market traders.

But, with advances in technology a new way of paying has emerged. Small card readers can now be plugged into iphones, ipads, other tablets and smartphones. By putting a customer’s card into this device customers can then pay by card and either sign for their purchase or use the phone to enter their security details. There are plan for these companies to offer chip and pin technology to further ease payment by card on market stalls. The traders pay a small commission per transaction, but aside from that, the initial start-up cost is minimal and it is likely to encourage more customers to use markets. Jim Stewart, the Director of a firm that has begun using this technology said:

I think it’s definitely going to take off, the world is going that way … The money has always appeared in my bank account, no transactions have been declined, my accountant is happy, it’s all been good.

Some customers have raised concerns about the security of these transactions, as they have to put their cards into someone else’s ipad. However, traders have said that there are no risks and that customers can be sent a receipt for their purchase. The following few articles look at this latest (and other) technological developments.

Smartphone card payment system seeks small firms BBC News, Rob Howard (19/1/13)
POS Trends: What’s new for 2013 Resource News (17/1/13)
Payments by text message service to launch in UK in Spring 2014 BBC News (15/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are fixed cost and why does having a traditional card payment machine represent a fixed cost for a firm?
  2. How might this new technology affect a firm’s sales and profits?
  3. Will there be an increase in the firm’s variable costs from adopting this technology?
  4. Using a cost and revenue diagram, put your answers to questions 1 – 3 into practice and show how it will shift them and thus how the equilibrium may change for a market trader.
  5. What are the properties of money that allow it to be a good medium of exchange?
  6. How will this increased use of debit and credit cards affect the demand for money? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.

Comet, Peacocks, Woolworths, JJB, Jessops and now HMV – they all have one thing in common. The recession has hit them so hard that they entered administration. HMV is the latest high street retailer to bring in the administrators, despite insisting that it does have a future on the UK’s high streets. With debts of £176m and huge competition from online retailers, the future of HMV is very uncertain.

Over the past decades, companies such as Amazon, ebay, LoveFilm, Netflix and apple have emerged providing very stiff competition to the last remaining high street seller of music and DVDs. People have been turning more and more to the internet to do their shopping, with cheaper prices and greater choice. The speed of delivery, which in the past may have been a disadvantage of buying from somewhere like Amazon, is now barely an obstacle and these substitute companies have created a difficult environment for high street retailers to compete in. Despite going into administration, it’s not necessarily the end of the much-loved HMV. Its Chief Executive said:

We remain convinced we can find a successful business outcomes. We want to make sure it remains on the high street … We know our customers fell the same way.

While the recession has undoubtedly affected sales at HMV, is this the main reason for its demise or are other factors more relevant? As discussed, online retailers have taken over the DVD and music industry and with downloading increasing in popularity and CD/DVDs on sale in numerous locations, including supermarket chains, HMV has felt the competitive pressure and its place on the high street has come into question. As Neil Saunders, the Managing Director of Conlumino said:

By our own figures, we forecast that by the end of 2015 some 90.4 per cent of music and film sales will be online. The bottom line is that there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector.

Further to this, prices have been forced downwards and HMV, having to pay high fixed costs to retain their place on the high streets, have been unable to compete and remain profitable. Another contributing factor could be an outdated management structure, which has not responded to the changing times. Whatever the cause, thousands of jobs have been put at risk. Even if buyers are found, some store closures by the administrators, Deloitte, seem inevitable. Customer gift vouchers have already become worthless and further losses to both workers and customers seem likely. It is thought that there will be many interested buyers and huge support from suppliers, but the former is likely to remain a relatively secretive area for some time.

This latest high street disaster will undoubtedly raise many questions. One theory about recovery from a recession looks at the need for many businesses to go under until the fittest are left and there is sufficient scope for new businesses to emerge.

Could it be that the collapse of companies such as Woolworths, HMV, Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster is an essential requirement for economic recovery? Or was the recession irrelevant for HMV? Was its collapse an inevitable consequence of the changing face of Britain’s high streets and if so, what does the future hold for the high street retailers? The following articles consider the demise of HMV.

HMV: a visual history BBC News (15/1/13)
Chief executive says ‘HMV still has a place on the high street’, as customers are told their gift vouchers are worthless Independent, James Thompson (15/1/13)
Potential buyers circle stricken HMV Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (15/1/13)
HMV and independents to urged to work together to save in-store music market BBC News, Clive Lindsay (15/1/13)
HMV record chain was besest by digital downloads and cheap DVDs The Guardian (15/1/13)
The death of traditional retailers like HMV started when we caught on to one-click and the joy of owning DVDs wore thin Independent, Grace Dent (15/1/13)
HMV shoppers: ‘I’m disappointed, but it’s understandable why they went bust The Guardian, James Brilliant (15/1/13)
HMV: Record labels could take HMV back to its 1920 roots The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (15/1/13)
HMV’s future seen as handful of stores and website Reuters, Neil Maidment and James Davey (15/1/13)
HMV leaves social gap in high street BBC News, Robert Plummer (15/1/13)
Is there good news in HMV’s collapse? BBC News, Robert Peston (15/1/13)
Is it game over for UK retail? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/13)
High Street retailers: Who has been hit hardest? BBC News (16/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons behind the collapse of HMV?
  2. Use a diagram to illustrate the impact the companies such as Amazon and Tesco have had on costs and prices in the entertainment industry.
  3. Has the value we place on owning DVDs truly changed or have other factors led to larger purchases of online entertainment?
  4. Why is online retail providing such steep competition to high street retailers?
  5. Explain why it can be argued that economic recovery will only take place after a certain number of businesses have gone into administration.
  6. To what extent do you think HMV’s collapse is due to its failure to adapt to changing social circumstances?
  7. Briefly outline the wider economic implications of the collapse of a company such as HMV. Think about managers, employees, suppliers, customers and other competitors, as well as other high street retailers.
  8. In which market structure would you place the entertainment industry? Explain your answer. Has this contributed to the demise of HMV?

For those looking to buy larger electrical appliances at cheaper prices, things might be looking up, as Comet have begun heavy discounting after entering administration. Deloitte, as the administrator, will now begin the search for a buyer for this retailer, while Comet aims to raise the funds to rescue the company.

Comet was bought by OpCapita last year, but with poor performance continuing across the 200+ stores, we could be about to see the demise of this retailer. Over 6,000 jobs are now at risk, although Deloitte has maintained that stores will continue to trade and that redundancies will not be made. One of the administrators said:

‘Our immediate priorities are to stabilise the business, fully assess its financial position, and begin an urgent process to seek a suitable buyer which would also preserve jobs.’

The retail environment has inevitably suffered over the past few years, with well-known companies such as Woolworths, Optical Express and JJB Sports (to name a few) entering administration. Comet, therefore seems to be the latest in a long line of sad trading stories. So, which factors have contributed towards the collapse of this giant retailer?

Over the past few years, online retailers have gained a larger and larger market share. These internet retailers do not have the same overhead costs that Comet and other high street retailers face. To open a store in an area where customers are in high supply, premium rents must be paid and this adds to the cost of running any given store. In order to cover these higher costs, higher prices can result and this, together with consumers facing tight budgets, has led many customers to look at the cheaper alternatives online. Deloitte has also said that Comet has been suffering from a lack of credit, which has meant that it has not been able to purchase stock in the run-up to Christmas. Deloitte commented that:

‘The inability to obtain supplier credit for the peak Christmas trading period means that the company had no realistic prospect of raising further capital to build up sufficient stock to allow it to continue trading.’

Concerned customers are naturally emerging, wondering whether items they have ordered and paid for will actually turn up. However, Deloitte’s reassurance that trading will continue may go some way to relieving their concern. The following articles consider how Comet has fallen from the sky.

Comet officially enters administration, stores re-open for expected firesale The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick and Helia Ebrahimi (2/11/12)
Comet calls in Deloitte as administrators BBC News (2/11/12)
Apple sky-high as Comet falls to earth The Guardian, Zoe Wood (2/11/12)
Comet enters administration, Deloitte seeks buyer Reuters (2/11/12)
Comet electricals administrators formally begin search for saviour The Guardian, Zoe Wood (2/11/12)
Comet goes into administration Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (3/11/12)
Comet collapse: Deloitte blames internet and lack of first-time home buyers The Telegraph(2/11/12)
Collapse of Comet puts 7000 jobs in danger Independent, James Thompson (2/11/12)

Questions

  1. Why does the retail environment remain very weak?
  2. Explain why Deloitte suggest that a lack of first time home buyers has played a part in the demise of Comet.
  3. Why has a lack of credit contributed towards Comet’s downfall?
  4. Should customers be concerned about how Comet’s demise (if indeed a buyer is not found) might affect prices in other retailers such as Currys, given that they will now have a larger share of the market?
  5. Why has online trading contributed towards the harsher retail environment for the high street stores? You should think about fixed and variable costs in your answer.
  6. Why are companies such as Apple doing so well relative to other companies, such as Comet and JJB Sports? Is there a secret to their success?
  7. What impact might this collapse have on local labour markets, given Comet employs so many people? Think about the effect on wages, unemployment and on claimants of benefits.

A modern day hindrance is spam email clogging up your inbox with, for example, offers for cheap drugs or notifications that you will inherit enough money to retire to the Bahamas. A recent paper by Justin Rao and David Reiley in the Journal of Economic Perspectives investigates the economics of spam mail (which, as I discovered, from the article gets it’s name from a Monty Python sketch). Remarkably, they quote figures suggesting that 88% of worldwide email traffic is spam. Their paper then provides a number of interesting insights into the business of spam mail.

First, given that most recipients simply delete it, why is spam mail sent out? For the benefits of sending it to exceed the costs, it must be that somebody is reading and responding to it and the costs must also be reasonably low. Rao and Reiley are able to quantify these costs and benefits. They estimate that if 8.3 million spam emails are sent, only 1.8% (approximately 150,000) will reach the intended recipients’ inboxes, with the remainder being blocked or filtered out. Of these 150,000, just 0.25% (375) are clicked on. Furthermore, these 375 clicks generate just a single sale of the advertised product which is typically sold for around $50. Assuming that free entry of spammers leads to them earning zero economic profit, this means that it costs the spammers around $50 to send the 8.3 million emails.

Second, spam mail clearly imposes a considerable negative externality on society. This includes wasted time for consumers and the costs of the extra server hardware capacity required. Rao and Reiley are also able to quantify the size of the negative externality created. First, they estimate that:

“American firms and consumers experience costs of almost $20 billion annually due to spam.”

This can then be compared to the benefits senders of spam get:

“….. we estimate that spammers and spam-advertised merchants collect gross worldwide revenues on the order of $200 million per year. Thus, the ‘externality ratio’ of external costs to internal benefits for spam is around 100:1.”

They then compare this to estimates for other negative externalities such as car pollution and conclude that the size of the negative externality from spam is significantly greater.

Finally, they also point out that it is predominantly the larger email service providers i.e. Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Hotmail, and Google Gmail who have both the incentives and resources to fund interventions to eradicate spam. For example, in 2009 Microsoft and Pfizer (the manufacturer of Viagra which faces competition from counterfeit versions often advertised by spam) financially supported the successful operation to shut down the largest spam distributor. Clearly, such operations have large positive spillovers for email users. However, as they also discuss, anti-spam technology also increases the fixed costs of competing as an email provider and they suggest that this has contributed to the increased concentration in the market.

The unpalatable business of spam The undercover economist, Tim Harford (19/07/12)
Huge spam botnet Grum is taken out by security researchers BBC News (19/07/12)
Spammers make a combined $200 million a year while costing society $20 billion BGR, Dan Graziano (28/08/12)

Questions

  1. Explain why free entry results in zero economic profit.
  2. Explain how an increase in fixed costs can lead to an increase in concentration.
  3. Why does Microsoft have large incentives to eradicate spam mail?
  4. In what ways does the externality created by spam mail differ from other forms of advertising?
  5. How might government policies alter the costs and benefits of sending spam mail?

Ginsters is a large producer of pasties in Cornwall. Most of its ingredients come from Cornwall, but the pasties are sold throughout Britain. But, not surprisingly, they are also sold in Cornwall. In fact, there is a large Tesco virtually next door to the Ginsters’ pasty plant and, as you can imagine, it does a good trade in Ginsters’ pasties, pies and sandwiches. After all, they are a local product.

But are they delivered directly from the Ginsters’ factory? No they are not. In fact, they are sent by lorry to the Avonmouth distribution depot, some 125 miles away, only to be sent back again to the Tesco supermarket next door! So does it make economic sense to incur all the costs of transporting the pasties 250 miles only to end up virtually where they started?

It is a similar story with Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream. It is made with Cornish milk but is also sold nationwide. In this case it is transported some 340 miles to get to another Tesco supermarket virtually next door to the Rodda plant.

The following articles and podcast consider the logistics of manufactured food distribution, and ask whether private costs are the only thing that should be taken into account when judging the sense of the system.

Articles
From here to eternity: 340-mile journey for clotted cream made two miles away Guardian, Steven Morris (3/9/10)
Food miles row as pasties travel 250 miles to the supermarket next door This is Cornwall (30/8/10)
Supermarket food mileage ‘completely bonkers’ BBC Today Programme, Tim Lang (30/8/10)

Questions

  1. Why does Tesco’s distribution system for pasties, clotted cream and other products made in parts of the country away from large centres of population make sense in ‘conventional economic terms’?
  2. What economies of scale are there in pasty production and distribution?
  3. What externalities are involved in the distribution of Ginsters’ pasties?
  4. Consider the arguments for and against locating mass producers of food products nearer to the ‘centre of gravity’ of markets.