So I just sent off a letter to India. To be precise, it is a document I had to sign and send to my accountant there – who sends regular “letters” any more?
The process at the post office (which, in my suburb, is located inside a large bookstore) was simple. In the first screen of the touch screen kiosk, there was an option for “worldwide < 20 grams”. A conveniently placed scale told me my letter weighed 18 grams, and one touch and one touch of my debit card later, I had my stamp. Within a minute, my letter was in the letterbox.
The story of how we pay the same amount for sending mail over large areas (“worldwide” in my case today) is interesting. Earlier, mail rates were based on distance, but as new roads kept being built in the 19th century America, and distances kept changing, figuring out how much to charge for a letter became “expensive”. A bright fellow figured out that the cost (in terms of time) of figuring out how much to charge for mail was of the same order of magnitude as the cost of the mail itself. And so the flat rate scheme for mail, that is prevalent worldwide today, was born.
Putting it in technical terms, transaction costs trumped price discrimination in this case. Price discrimination is the art (yes, it’s an art) of charging different amounts to different people based on their differential willingness to pay. Uber surge pricing is one example (I have a chapter in my book on this). Airline fares are another common example.
Until the late 18th century (well after mail prices had gone “flat”), price discrimination was rather common everywhere, a concept I have devoted a chapter to in the book. In fact, the initial motivation for fixed price retail was religious – Quakers, who owned many departmental stores in the US North-East, thought “all men are created equal before God” and so it was incorrect to charge different amounts to different people.
Soon other benefits of fixed prices became apparent (faster billing; less training for staff; in fact it was fixed prices that permitted the now prevalent supermarket format), and it took off. The concept is the same as stamps – the transaction cost of figuring out how much to charge whom is higher than the additional revenue you can make with such price differentiation (not counting possible loss of reputation, and fairness issues). Price discrimination at the shop is now confined to high value high margin businesses such as cars.
And it works in other high gross margin businesses such as airlines, hotels and telecom. These are all businesses with high fixed costs and low marginal costs for the suppliers. Low marginal costs has meant that price discrimination ha been termed as “revenue management” in the airline industry.
During the launch function of my book last year, I got asked if Uber’s practice of personalising fares for passengers is fair (I had given a long lecture on how Uber’s surge pricing is a necessary component of keeping average prices low and boosting liquidity in the taxi market). I had answered that a marketplace needs to ensure that its pricing is perceived as being “fair”, else they might lose customers to competitors. But what if all players in a market practice extreme price discrimination?
Thinking about it, transaction costs will take care of price discrimination before businesses and marketplaces start thinking of fairness. Beyond a point (the point varies by industry), the marginal revenues from price discrimination will fall below the transaction cost of executing this discrimination. And that poses a natural limit to how much price discrimination a business can practice.