Maximum Retail Price is a conspiracy by FMCG companies

A few months back, Anupam Manur, a colleague at the Takshashila Institution, had written an Op-Ed in The Hindu that the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) mechanism is archaic and needs to be shelved.

Introduced in 1990 by the Department of Civil Supplies, this regulation governs that the maximum price at which packed goods can be sold be printed on the packet, and makes any transactions at a price higher than this price illegal. This was intended to be a mechanism to protect consumers from usurious shopkeepers (remember this was introduced just before economic reforms were launched), and Anupam’s piece also treats the intention as such.

Having now briefly lived in a country with no such regulations (Spain), I must say that my entire perspective of how retail works has been turned upside down (and this, having spent a year consulting for a major retail chain in India).

The existence of the MRP in India means you tend to look at everything in retail from that perspective – the manufacturer/packager, for example, can set margins (a percentage of the MRP) that each segment of the supply chain can earn. As a consequence, players in the chain have little leverage on what prices to charge – at best, they can forego a part of their (usually tiny) margins in order to drive sales.

Without the existence of MRP, however, the (power) equation is turned upside down. Two supermarkets close to my home in Barcelona (about 200m from each other), for example, charge €0,79 and €0,96 respectively for identical cartons of milk (of the same brand, etc.). This price difference (17% or 21% the way you look at it) of a retail commodity between two nearby stores would be impossible to see in India.

Given the broad similarity in these two supermarkets, it is unlikely that there’s too much difference in what they would have paid to procure these cartons of milk. In other words, one supermarket makes a far higher margin selling this milk (which is possibly compensated by the other’s higher sales).

In other words, in a market without MRP, the manufacturer/brand loses control over the pricing once he has sold products down the chain – it is up to the respective player in the chain to determine what he will charge for from his buyers, and thus manage his own revenues. While free markets mean that prices of products broadly converge across stores, the manufacturer/brand can do little in order to dictate them beyond a point.

With this kind of pricing power missing from retailers in a market like India (with MRP), the retailer is at a greater mercy of the manufacturer. The manufacturer can allow the retailer some leeway in pricing, for example, by setting an artificially high MRP, but the question is whether the manufacturer wants the retailer to have this leeway.

Under the current system (MRP), the retailer is mostly at the mercy of the manufacturer. The manufacturer has bargaining power over how much stocks to distribute to the retailer and when, and there is little leeway for the retailer to manage his stocks intelligently. In fact, for some products, manufacturers even control discounts and don’t allow retailers to sell below a particular price (threatening to stop supplies in case they do so). Without the MRP, this kind of coercion on behalf of manufacturers will be significantly reduced.

In this context, it is useful to look at the MRP as a tool that shifts the balance of power in the packaged goods supply chain in favour of the manufacturers/brands and away from the retailers. As Anupam has established in his piece, customers don’t necessarily benefit from this regulation. They are merely an excuse for manufacturers of packaged goods to exert bargaining power over the retailers.

In other words, the MRP is a conspiracy by the FMCG companies, who stand to benefit most from such regulations (at the cost of retailers and customers).

With the current union government supposedly enjoying support of the trading community, there is no better opportunity for this MRP regulation to go.

Uber and the narrative bias

Following the alleged rape of a Delhi woman by a cab driver who she’d engaged via the Uber app, the Delhi government has banned Uber. Union home minister rajnath Singh has issued a notification to other state governments to do the same though union transport minister Nitin Gadkari has rightly called it a silly idea.

Irrespective of whether the service gets banned, fewer people are likely to use it. A survey conducted by Mint newspaper has shown that nearly half the people surveyed will not use an Uber following the incident (the survey doesn’t mention how many of those surveyed are existing users of Uber).

About a year back, two buses of the Volvo make (one travelling from Bangalore to Hyderabad and the other from Bangalore to Pune) caught fire, resulting in passenger deaths. While the government of Karnataka mercifully didn’t ban Volvo buses (instead simply subjecting them to safety checks and insisting on emergency exits), there was a large backlash from the public who eschewed travel by Volvos in favour of travel by other means of transport.

In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, Americans eschewed air travel in favour of driving. Gerd Gigerenzer, a specialist in risk, has estimated that 1595 additional people died in the year following 9/11 on account of driving rather than taking flights.

The question that arises is what those current users of Uber who don’t want to use the service any more are going to do – surely they must resort to alternate means of transport to commute? The question they need to ask themselves is If the new chosen means of transport is safer than Uber!

People abandoning Uber in droves following last weekend’s incident is due to what I can the “narrative bias”. Last weekend’s incident has introduced the narrative that Uber is not necessarily safe – at least it is not as safe as people assumed it to be prior to the incident. And this narrative is likely to lead to people reacting, and in a direction that is not necessarily better for them!

So if people abandon Uber, or if it gets banned (the proposal is to ban other app based cab services too ), what is the alternative, and is it safer than Uber? Extremely unlikely, If the answer is auto rickshaws for example. We might as well end up in a situation like what happened on the highways in the US after 9/11.

News by definition is spectacular and spectacular incidents are much more likely to be reported than unspectacular ones (a favourite example I use is – how many times do we see a headline that says ” Ashok Leyland bus catches fire. Passengers dead “? The fact that we seldom see such headlines doesn’t mean that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire). This, however, doesn’t mean that policymaking, too, be based on spectacular events only.

Any regulation, and decisions by people, should be based on rational expectations and not be biased by narratives and the spectacular. There is always pressure on the policymaker to ” do something “. This however doesn’t mean that anything will do. Decisions need to be based on reason and not narratives!

PostScript: I’ve written this post sitting in the back of an Uber taxi in Bangalore