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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wal-Mart versus Amazon?

James Surowiecki looks at the latest price war:

Priced to Go, by James Surowiecki: In the spring of 1992, the airline industry ... found itself in the middle of a full-fledged price war. In a matter of months, the airlines collectively lost four billion dollars. ...[A]t bottom it was just like other price wars: all the companies involved got hurt.

So you might wonder why Wal-Mart recently decided to start its own price war, taking on Amazon in the online book market. ...Amazon and Wal-Mart are surely losing money every time they sell one of the discounted titles. The more they sell, the less they make. That doesn’t sound like good business.

It’s easy to see how price wars get started. In industries where a lot of competitors are selling the same product—mangoes, gasoline, DVD players—price is the easiest way to distinguish yourself. The hope is that if you cut prices enough you can increase your market share, and ... your profits. But this works only if your competitors won’t, or can’t, follow suit. More likely, they’ll cut prices, too, and you’ll end up selling the same share of mangoes, only at a lower price...: everyone loses. ...
The best way to win a price war, then, is not to play in the first place. Instead, you can compete in other areas: customer service or quality. Or you can collude...—since overt collusion is usually illegal—you can employ subtler tactics ... like making public statements about the importance of “stable pricing.” The idea is to let your competitors know that you’re not eager to slash prices—but that, if a price war does start, you’ll fight to the bitter end. One way to establish that peace-preserving threat of mutual assured destruction is to commit yourself beforehand, which helps explain why so many retailers promise to match any competitor’s advertised price. Consumers view these guarantees as conducive to lower prices. But ... offering a price-matching guarantee should make it less likely that competitors will slash prices, since they know that any cuts they make will immediately be matched. It’s the retail version of the doomsday machine.
These tactics and deterrents don’t always work, though, which is why price wars keep breaking out. Sometimes it’s rational: when a company is genuinely more efficient than its competitors, lowering prices is usually a smart move. (That’s how competition is supposed to work.) More often, price wars are reckless gambles. ...
Amazon and Wal-Mart hardly seem reckless, though. So why did they go to war? The answer is that they didn’t, really. Sure, Wal-Mart is making a statement that it’s a player in the online world, but the real goal of this conflict isn’t to lure readers away from Amazon... It’s to lure them online, away from big booksellers and other retailers, and then sell them other stuff... It’s textbook loss-leader economics. ...

The real competition in this price war is not between Wal-Mart and Amazon but between those behemoths and everyone else—and the damage everyone else is incurring is deliberate, not collateral. Wal-Mart and Amazon have figured out how to fight a price war and win: make sure someone else takes the blows.

[Traveling: Preset to post automatically.]

    Posted by on Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 12:42 AM in Economics, Market Failure | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (30)

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