That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column. Here is one bit:
Let’s say bottled water was selling at $42.96 a case at the local Best Buy, as shown in this photo. A customer can take out his or her smartphone, snap a photo and post it on social media. The photo may go viral, and many people, including the legal authorities, will be mad at the company.
The reluctance to raise prices is especially strong for nationally branded stores. A local merchant may not care much if people in Iowa are upset at his prices, but major companies will fear damage to their national reputations. The short-term return from selling the water at a higher price is dwarfed by the risk to their business prospects. More and more of the value of business capital is intangible capital, more than 84 percent of the S&P 500 by some estimates. That’s why Best Buy so quickly apologized for its store selling the water at such a high price, blaming the incident on an overzealous local manager.
Consider an alternative: Instead of raising prices to very high levels, let’s say that the local big-box store sells out quickly during an emergency and has empty shelves for water. If those photos circulate, they will be interpreted as signs of general tragedy and want, rather than selfish corporate behavior. It’s too subtle an image to snap the price tag at pre-storm levels, contrast it with the empty shelves, and lecture your Facebook friends about the workings of market-clearing supply and demand and the virtues of flexibly adjusting prices.
Beware the culture of the image! As I’ve said before, we should levy a micro-tax on photos on Twitter.