A number of famous Business Schools in the UK and US such as MIT Sloan, NYU Stern and Imperial College have launched new programmes in business analytics. These courses have been nicknamed ‘Big Data finishing school’. Why might qualifications in this area be highly valued by firms?
Employees who have the skills to collect and process Big Data might help firms to successfully implement a pricing strategy that approaches first-degree price discrimination.
First-degree price discrimination is where the seller of a product is able to charge each consumer the maximum price he or she is prepared to pay for each unit of the product. Successfully implementing this type of pricing strategy could enable a firm to make more revenue. It might also lead to an increase in economic efficiency. However, the strategy might be opposed on equity grounds.
In reality, perfect price discrimination is more of a theoretical benchmark than a viable pricing strategy. Discovering the maximum amount each of its customers is willing to pay is an impossible task for a firm.
It may be possible for some sellers to implement a person-specific pricing strategy that approaches first-degree price discrimination. Firms may not be able to charge each customer the maximum amount they are willing to pay but they may be able to charge different prices that reflect customers’ different valuations of the product.
How could a firm go about predicting how much each of its customers is willing to pay? Traditionally smaller sellers might try to ‘size up’ a customer through individual observation and negotiation. The clothes people wear, the cars they drive and their ethnicity/nationality might indicate something about their income. Second-hand car dealers and stall-holders often haggle with customers in an attempt to personalise pricing. The starting point of these negotiations will often be influenced by the visual observations made by the seller.
The problem with this approach is that observation and negotiation is a time-consuming process. The extra costs involved might be greater than the extra revenue generated. This might be especially true for firms that sell a large volume of products. Just imagine how long it would take to shop at a supermarket if each customer had to haggle with a member of staff over each item in their supermarket trolley!! There is also the problem of designing compensation contracts for sales staff that provide appropriate incentives.
However the rise of e-commerce may lead to a very different trading environment. Whenever people use their smart phones, laptops and tablets to purchase goods, they are providing huge amounts of information (perhaps unconsciously) to the seller. This is known as Big Data. If this information can be effectively collected and processed then it could be used by the seller to predict different customers’ willingness to pay.
Some of this Big Data provides information similar to that observed by sellers in traditional off-line transactions. However, instead of visual clues observed by a salesperson, the firm is able to collect and process far greater quantities of information from the devices that people use.
For example, the Internet Protocol (IP) address could be used to identify the geographical location of the customer: i.e. do they live in a relatively affluent or socially deprived area? The operating system and browser might also indicate something about a buyer’s income and willingness to pay. The travel website, Orbitz, found that Apple users were 40 per cent more likely to book four or five star hotel rooms than customers who used Windows.
Perhaps the most controversial element to Big Data is the large amount of individual-level information that exists about the behaviour of customers. In particular, browsing histories can be used to find out (a) what types of goods people have viewed (b) how long they typically spend on-line and (c) their previous purchase history. This behavioural information might accurately predict price sensitivity and was never available in off-line transactions.
Interestingly, there has been very little evidence to date that firms are implementing personalised pricing on the internet. One possible explanation is that effective techniques to process the mass of available information have not been fully developed. This would help to explain the growth in business analytics courses offered by universities. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently announced its aim to recruit one thousand more data scientists over the next two years.
Another possible explanation is that firms fear a backlash from customers who are deeply opposed to this type of pricing. In a widely cited survey of consumers, 91% of the respondents believed that first-degree price discrimination was unfair.
Big data is coming for your purchase history – to charge you more money The Guardian, Anna Bernasek and DT Mongan (29/5/15)
Big data is an economic justice issue, not just a Privacy Problem The Huffington Post, Nathan Newman (16/5/15)
MIT’s $75,000 Big Data finishing school (and its many rivals) Financial Times, Adam Jones (20/3/16)
The Government’s consumer data watchdog New York Times, Natasha Singer (23/5/2015)
The economics of big data and differential pricing The Whitehouse blog, Jason Furman, Tim Simcoe (6/2/2015)
- Explain the difference between first- and third-degree price discrimination.
- Using an appropriate diagram, explain why perfect price discrimination might result in an economically more efficient outcome than uniform pricing.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate how a policy of first-degree price discrimination could lead to greater revenue but lower profits for a firm.
- Why would it be so difficult for a firm to discover the maximum amount each of its customers was willing to pay?
- Explain how the large amount of information on the individual behaviour of customers (so-called Big Data) could be used to predict differences in their willingness to pay.
- What factors might prevent a firm from successfully implementing a policy of personalised pricing?
Recent reports in the media have included headlines such as “Sexist surcharge” and “Pink premium?” Various claims have been made that women pay significantly higher prices for similar products than men.
The Times newspaper recently published the results from an investigation it carried out on the prices of hundreds of similar products that were marketed at both men and women. The study found that those products marketed at women cost 37% more on average than similar versions that were marketed at men. Examples included:
||Disposable razors: Tesco priced a packet of five of its own-brand disposable razors for women at £1. The key characteristic that targeted the razors at female customers was the colour – they were pink. For the same price, a packet targeted at male customers (i.e. they were blue) contained 10 disposable razors.
||Ballpoint pens: Staples priced a packet of five pastel-coloured Bic pens marketed ‘for her’ at £2.99. A packet of five Bic pens that were not in the ‘for her’ range (i.e. they had transparent barrels) were priced at £1.98.
||Scooters: Argos increased the price of a child’s scooter by £5 if it was pink instead of blue.
Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, stated that:
“It is unacceptable that women face higher costs for the same product just because they are targeted at women. Retailers have got to explain why they do this.”
A more detailed study carried out by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs was published in December 2015. Average prices were collected for 794 individual items across 5 different industries. The key findings were that products marketed at women were
||7 per cent more for toys and accessories
||4 per cent more for children’s clothing
||8 per cent more for adult clothing
||13 per cent more for personal care products
||8 per cent more for health products
Interestingly whereas the investigation in the UK only found examples of women paying higher prices than men, the New York study found some goods where the price was higher for men.
Reports in the media have claimed that this is clear evidence of price discrimination. Although this is likely to be true, it is impossible to say for certain without more detailed information on costs.
For example, when referring to the higher price for the razors marketed at women in the UK study, Richard Hyman, an analyst at RAH Advisory, stated that:
“the packaging will be different and they will sell fewer so it could be to do with the volume”
If economies of scale and the different costs of packaging can fully account for the difference in prices between the razors then it is not an example of price discrimination.
The sexist surcharge – how women get ripped off on the high street The Guardian 19/01/16
Women paying more than men for everyday products The Independent 19/01/16
Price differences for men and women ‘astonishing’ BBC 19/01/16
Pink premium? There are greater problems The Guardian 24/01/16
Being a women costs more than being a man CNBC 23/12/15
- Define price discrimination.
- Outline and explain the three different categories of price discrimination.
- Could a situation where a firms charges all of its customers the same price for a good or service ever be classed as an example of price discrimination?
- A firm with market power may still not be able to successfully implement a policy of price discrimination. Explain why.
- Under what circumstances could price discrimination improve allocative efficiency?
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.
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)
- Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
- What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
- 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.’
Merlin Entertainments PLC is one of the largest operator of visitor attractions in the world and owns over a third of the most popular theme parks in Europe. It runs the four most visited parks in England – Alton Towers, Legoland Windsor, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures as well as the most popular theme park in Italy – Gardaland. Alton Towers alone had 2.5 million visitors in 2013. Anybody thinking of going to one of these attractions is faced with a wide range of different entry fees .
Theme parks and tourist attractions have market power so their owners have to make some interesting pricing decisions. They have to tackle the same dilemma that confronts any seller that faces a downward sloping demand curve for its goods/services.
One option for the firm would be to increase the entry fee. This would produce higher profits per visitor as some of the surplus from the transaction previously enjoyed by the consumer will be extracted by the seller and converted into producer surplus. Unfortunately for the business the higher price, all other things equal, will also result in fewer visitors. Some people will be deterred from visiting because of the higher price and the seller will lose out on potential revenue.
An alternative strategy would be for the theme park to reduce its entry fee. All other things equal, this will increase the number of visitors. However, it would also mean that the profit per customer would fall. The frustrating issue for the seller is that some of its customers, who would still have visited the attraction at the higher price, are now able to get a better deal.
This dilemma exists if the seller has to charge all of its different customers the same entry fee. If it could charge a higher entry fee to those customers who would be willing to pay more and a lower entry fee to those who would be willing to pay less then it could make more money. Extra revenue could be obtained from those additional sales that take place at the lower price while more consumer surplus could be extracted from those still paying the higher price.
Is it possible for a firm to charge different prices to different customers for the same or a similar good or service? Table 1 below shows the entry fees for Warwick Castle, another tourist attraction owned by Merlin Entertainments PLC.
It can immediately be seen from this table that some groups of customers pay a different entry fee from others. For example adults have to pay £24 to enter on the day while people aged 60 and over pay a lower price £16.80. The entry fee for children aged between 4 and 11 is £21.00 while those aged 3 and under go for free. Students aged 16-18 can gain entry for a price of £13.50 if they can provide valid ID and purchase the tickets from the visitbritainshop website.
In this example, the company has allocated people into different categories by age (i.e. senior, adult, student, older children and younger children) and has set the entry fee that customers in each group have to pay.
The table also shows that if customers purchase on- line then they can get the tickets more cheaply. The entry fee for each category is 25% lower if the ticket is booked seven days in advance i.e. the prices shown in the last column in the table. If the booking is made between 2-6 days in advance then the discount is only 10% i.e. an adult ticket would cost £21.60. The on-line discounts are open to everyone. People are given the choice to either book on-line in advance or pay on the day. This is different from a situation where you are placed into a category by the firm. For example the customer cannot choose whether they are over 60!
If people are prepared to spend more time searching on the internet then other cheaper prices can also be obtained. Once again these offers are open to anyone willing to spend the time and effort in order to find them.
All the ticket prices above give people access to exactly the same attractions on the day. They do not give the visitor access to two of the attractions at the castle – the Dragon Tower and Castle Dungeon. Entry to the Dragon Tower would cost an adult on the day an extra £1.80 while entry to the Castle Dungeon would cost an extra £5.40.
Warwick Castle Ticket Prices Warwick Castle (accessed on 04/09/14)
Alton Towers Alton Towers (accessed on 08/09/14)
Warwick Castle Tickets visitbritainshop (accessed on 02/09/14)
Global Attractions Attendance Report teaconnect (accessed on 05/09/14)
Merlin Entertainments Merlin Entertainments (accessed on 08/09/14)
- What pricing decisions do firms have to make if they operate in a perfectly competitive market?
- Explain why an individual tourist attraction will have a downward sloping demand curve
- Paying an entry fee and an extra payment per attraction is known as what type of pricing? What advantages does this type of price strategy have for the seller?
- How would you calculate the profit per customer? What factors other than the entrance fee would determine the profit made per customer in a theme park or tourist attractions?
- Paying a different price depending on which category you have been assigned to by the seller is known as what type of pricing strategy? Can this type of pricing strategy ever be in the interests of society?
- In the example used in the case, customers are assigned to different categories by age. Can you think of any other ways that firms could categorise their customers?
- Given the category customers have been assigned to they can pay different prices depending on whether they buy the tickets on line. What is the price strategy called when customers can choose from a variety of pricing options for the same or similar product? Can you think of any different methods that could be used by the seller to carry out this type of pricing strategy?
Over the past few decades, numerous areas within the British economy have been partly or fully privatized and one such case is British Rail. Why is this relevant now? We’re once again looking at the potential increase in rail fares across the country and the impact this will have on commuters and households. So, have the promises of privatisation – namely lower fares – actually materialised?
Comparing the increase in rail fares with that of the RPI makes for interesting reading. Data obtained back in January 2013 shows that since 1995, when the last set of British Rail fares were published, the RPI has been 66%, according to data from Barry Doe and this compares unfavourably with the increase in a single ticket from London to Manchester which had increased by over 200%. However, it compares favourably with a season ticket, which had only increased by 65%. In the last couple of years, increased in rail fares have been capped by the government to increase by no more than the rate of inflation. As such, customers are likely to be somewhat insulated from the increases that were expected, which could have ranged between 3 and 5%.
This announcement has been met with mixed reviews, with many in support of such caps and the benefit this will bring to working households, including Passenger Focus, the rail customer watchdog. Its Passenger Director, David Sidebottom said:
The capping of rail fare rises by inflation will be welcome news to passengers in England, especially those who rely on the train for work, as will the ban on train companies increasing some fares by more than the average. It is something we have been pushing for, for several years now and we are pleased that the Government has recognised the need to act to relieve the burden on passengers.
However, others have criticised the increases in rail fares, given the cost of living crisis and the potential 9% pay rise for MPs. The acting General Secretary of the RMT transport union commented:
The announcement from George Osborne does not stack up to a freeze for millions of people whose incomes are stagnant due to years of austerity. To try and dress this up as benefiting working people is pure fraud on the part of the Government … Tomorrow, RMT will be out at stations across the north where some off-peak fares will double overnight.
Commuters in different parts of the country do face different prices and with some changes in peak travel times in the Northern part of the country, it is expected that some customers will see significant hikes in prices. Peak travel prices being higher is no surprise and there are justifiable reasons for this, but would such changes in peak times in the North have occurred had we still been under British Rail? Privatisation should bring more competition, lower prices and government revenue at the point of sale. Perhaps you might want to look in more detail at the actual to see whether or not you think the benefits of privatisation have actually emerged. The following articles consider the latest announcement regarding rail fares.
Rail fares to increase by 2.5% in January after Osborne caps price rises at no more than inflation Mail Online, Tom McTague (7/9/14)
Have train fares gone up or down since British Rail? BBC News, Tom Castella (22/1/13)
Rail fares to match inflation rate for another 12 months The Guardian (7/9/14)
Britain caps rail fares at inflation Reuters (7/9/14)
Regulated rail fares to increase by 3.5% in 2015 BBC News (19/8/14)
Northern commuters face big rise in fares for evening travel The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (7/9/14)
Commuter rail fares frozen again, says George Osborne BBC News (7/8/14)
Rail fares, the third payroll tax Financial Times, Jonathan Eley (22/8/14)
- What are the general advantages and disadvantages of privatisation, whether it is of British Rail or British Gas?
- Why is it that season tickets have increased by less than the RPI, but single tickets have increased by more?
- What are the conditions needed to allow train companies to charge a higher price at peak travel times?
- Are higher prices at peak times an example of price discrimination? Explain why or why not.
- In the Financial Times article, it is suggested that rail fares are like a payroll tax. What is a payroll tax and why are rail fares related to this? Does it suggest that the current method of setting rail fares is equitable?
- Based on the arguments contained in the articles, do you think the cap on rail fares is sufficient?