Price dispersion and pandemics

Price dispersion is an excellent indicator of transactional frictions. It isn’t that absent price dispersion, we can confidently say that frictions are negligible. Frictions can be substantial even when price dispersion is zero. For instance, if the search costs are high enough that it makes it irrational to search, all the sellers will price the good at the buyer’s Willingness To Pay (WTP). Third world tourist markets, which are full of hawkers selling the same thing at the same price, are good examples of that. But when price dispersion exists, we can be reasonably sure that there are frictions in transacting. This is what makes the existence of substantial price dispersion on Amazon compelling.

Amazon makes price discovery easy, controls some aspects of quality by kicking out sellers who don’t adhere to its policies and provides reasonable indicators of quality of service with its user ratings. But still, on nearly all items that I looked at, there was substantial price dispersion. Take, for instance, the market for a bottle of Nature Made B12 vitamins. 

Prices go from $8.40 to nearly $30. It is not immediately clear why sellers selling the product at $30 are in the market. It could be that the expected service quality for the $30 seller is higher except that between the most expensive and the next lowest price seller, the ratings of the next highest seller are lower. And I would imagine that the ratings (and implied quality) of Amazon, which comes in with the lowest price, are the highest.

p.s. Sales of the boxed set of Harry Potter show a similar pattern.

That is all from Gaurav Sood.


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