Reading: Price Discrimination

Price Discrimination

Throughout this text up to this point, we have assumed that firms sold all units of output at the same price. In some cases, however, firms can charge different prices to different consumers. If such an opportunity exists, the firm can increase profits further.

When a firm charges different prices for the same good or service to different consumers, even though there is no difference in the cost to the firm of supplying these consumers, the firm is engaging in price discrimination. Except for a few situations of price discrimination that have been declared illegal, such as manufacturers selling their goods to distributors at different prices when there are no differences in cost, price discrimination is generally legal.

The potential for price discrimination exists in all market structures except perfect competition. As long as a firm faces a downward-sloping demand curve and thus has some degree of monopoly power, it may be able to engage in price discrimination. But monopoly power alone is not enough to allow a firm to price discriminate. Monopoly power is one of three conditions that must be met:

  1. A Price-Setting Firm The firm must have some degree of monopoly power—it must be a price setter. A price-taking firm can only take the market price as given—it is not in a position to make price choices of any kind. Thus, firms in perfectly competitive markets will not engage in price discrimination. Firms in monopoly, monopolistically competitive, or oligopolistic markets may engage in price discrimination.
  2. Distinguishable Customers The market must be capable of being fairly easily segmented—separated so that customers with different elasticities of demand can be identified and treated differently.
  3. Prevention of Resale The various market segments must be isolated in some way from one another to prevent customers who are offered a lower price from selling to customers who are charged a higher price. If consumers can easily resell a product, then discrimination is unlikely to be successful. Resale may be particularly difficult for certain services, such as dental checkups.

Examples of Price Discrimination

Examples of price discrimination abound. Senior citizens and students are often offered discount fares on city buses. Children receive discount prices for movie theater tickets and entrance fees at zoos and theme parks. Faculty and staff at colleges and universities might receive discounts at the campus bookstore. Airlines give discount prices to customers who are willing to stay over a Saturday night. Physicians might charge wealthy patients more than poor ones. People who save coupons are able to get discounts on many items. In all these cases a firm charges different prices to different customers for what is essentially the same product.

Not every instance of firms charging different prices to different customers constitutes price discrimination. Differences in prices may reflect different costs associated with providing the product. One buyer might require special billing practices, another might require delivery on a particular day of the week, and yet another might require special packaging. Price differentials based on differences in production costs are not examples of price discrimination.

Why would a firm charge different prices to different consumers? The answer can be found in the marginal decision rule and in the relationship between marginal revenue and elasticity.

Suppose an airline has found that its long-run profit-maximizing solution for a round-trip flight between Minneapolis and Cleveland, when it charges the same price to all passengers, is to carry 300 passengers at $200 per ticket. The airline has a degree of monopoly power, so it faces a downward-sloping demand curve. The airline has noticed that there are essentially two groups of customers on each flight: people who are traveling for business reasons and people who are traveling for personal reasons (visiting family or friends or taking a vacation). We will call this latter group “tourists.” Of the 300 passengers, 200 are business travelers and 100 are tourists. The airline’s revenue from business travelers is therefore currently $40,000 ($200 times 200 business travelers) and from tourists is currently $20,000 ($200 times 100 tourists).

It seems likely that the price elasticities of demand of these two groups for a particular flight will differ. Tourists may have a wide range of substitutes: They could take their trips at a different time, they could vacation in a different area, or they could easily choose not to go at all. Business travelers, however, might be attending meetings or conferences at a particular time and in a particular city. They have options, of course, but the range of options is likely to be more limited than the range of options facing tourists. Given all this, tourists are likely to have relatively more price elastic demand than business travelers for a particular flight.

The difference in price elasticities suggests the airline could increase its profit by adjusting its pricing. To simplify, suppose that at a price of about $200 per ticket, demand by tourists is relatively price elastic and by business travelers is relatively less price elastic. It is plausible that the marginal cost of additional passengers is likely to be quite low, since the number of crew members will not vary and no food is served on short flights. Thus, if the airline can increase its revenue, its profits will increase. Suppose the airline lowers the price for tourists to $190. Suppose that the lower price encourages 10 more tourists to take the flight. Of course, the airline cannot charge different prices to different tourists; rather it charges $190 to all, now 110, tourists. Still, the airline’s revenue from tourist passengers increases from $20,000 to $20,900 ($190 times 110 tourists). Suppose it charges $250 to its business travelers. As a result, only 195 business travelers take the flight. The airline’s revenue from business travelers still rises from $40,000 to $48,750 ($250 times 195 business travelers). The airline will continue to change the mix of passengers, and increase the number of passengers, so long as doing so increases its profit. Because tourist demand is relatively price elastic, relatively small reductions in price will attract relatively large numbers of additional tourists. Because business demand is relatively less elastic, relatively large increases in price will discourage relatively small numbers of business travelers from making the trip. The airline will continue to reduce its price to tourists and raise its price to business travelers as long as it gains profit from doing so.

Of course, the airline can impose a discriminatory fare structure only if it can distinguish tourists from business travelers. Airlines typically do this by looking at the travel plans of their customers. Trips that involve a stay over a weekend, for example, are more likely to be tourist related, whereas trips that begin and end during the workweek are likely to be business trips. Thus, airlines charge much lower fares for trips that extend through a weekend than for trips that begin and end on weekdays.

In general, price-discrimination strategies are based on differences in price elasticity of demand among groups of customers and the differences in marginal revenue that result. A firm will seek a price structure that offers customers with more elastic demand a lower price and offers customers with relatively less elastic demand a higher price.

It is always in the interest of a firm to discriminate. Yet most of the goods and services that we buy are not offered on a discriminatory basis. A grocery store does not charge a higher price for vegetables to vegetarians, whose demand is likely to be less elastic than that of its omnivorous customers. An audio store does not charge a different price for Pearl Jam’s compact disks to collectors seeking a complete collection than it charges to casual fans who could easily substitute a disk from another performer. In these cases, firms lack a mechanism for knowing the different demands of their customers and for preventing resale.

Monopolies are usually considered to be inefficient, but if allowed to price discriminate they can (in a perfect world) be very efficient. Of course, unregulated monopolies are illegal in the U.S. and regulated monopolies generally are not allowed to price discriminate. For this reason, price discrimination is really a practice of imperfectly competitive firms (oligopolies and monopolistically competitive firms).

Self Check: Inefficiencies in Monopolies

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

You’ll have more success on the Self Check if you’ve completed the three Readings in this section.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.