Profitable pricing is literally “shrouded” in mystery…

A couple of years ago, behavioral economists Xavier Gabaix and  David Laibson wrote a seminal paper on the concept of “price shrouding,” and “information suppression”.

Here’s a summary excepted from The Red Tape Chronicles

The principle is simple, and shows why cheating is rampant in our markets and why honesty is rarely the best policy.

First, a definition of shrouding:

In days gone by, price tags were simple.

An apple cost 10 cents.  A cup of coffee cost $1.

But today, the consumer marketplace is far more complicated, giving sellers the opportunity to create confusion.

Many items have follow-up costs that make the original price tag meaningless.

Computer printers are the classic example.

You might get a great deal on a printer, but if the ink is expensive, you lose in the end.

In fact, Gabaix argues that it’s impossible for consumers to intelligently shop for printers.

No consumer knows how much ink costs — the cartridges don’t come in standard sizes, the amount of ink used to print varies and ink costs are unpredictable.

That makes the true price  “shrouded” — not quite hidden, but not quite clear, either

So, it’s easy for printer companies to lowball printer price tags and overcharge for ink, enabling them to print money.

Shrouded price tags are everywhere.

The hotel website might say “$99 a night” but you know the bill will be more like $120 or $130.

Pay TV companies promise $30-a-month service, which ends up costing more like $50.

At its best, the maddening mixture of coupons, rebates, sales and fine print fees can feel like a game.

At worst, it’s being cheated.

You’d think shoppers would love a chance to buy from a store that doesn’t play these games, the way car buyers (allegedly) like shopping at no-haggle auto dealerships.

They don’t.

Shoppers hunt for the tricks that let them save money.

Stores hide booby traps that let them take money.

If a firm tries to educate consumers on tricks and traps, and tries to offer an honest product, a funny thing happens: Consumers say, “Thank you for the tips,” and go back to the tricky companies, where they exploit the new knowledge to get cheaper prices, leaving the “honest” firm in the dust.

Once you educate consumers on the right way to shop, they will seek out the lowest cost store, and that will be the one with the shrouded prices.”

“Shrouding is the more profitable strategy.”

Like it or not, hidden fees – and secret discounts – are here to stay.

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One Response to “Profitable pricing is literally “shrouded” in mystery…”

  1. Brad Steeples Says:

    This is the epitome of “Gotca Capitalism”, which is so often what our Liberal friends are railing against when they rail against capitalism. As you rightly point out here, it’s not really capitalism in the free market sense at all, where prices are clear and transparent. It is a form of intentional trickery based on asymmetric information. The printer supplier knows better than you do how often you will need to refill the ink cartridge, and how much it will cost you, and they take advantage. That is but one small example, of course – there is a litany of American industries today that make their living off of either nuisance fees which are not included in the upfront “price tag”, and/or recurring charges, the frequency and amount of which are at best unclear and at worst completely unknown to the buyer. Airlines. Hotels. Cable TV providers. Cellular service providers. Electric toothbrushes. Shavers. Financial services. And on and on and on.

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