One interesting concept explained was price-targeting. Let’s say a coffee shop has to spend 50 cents to make a cup of coffee, including labor and materials but not rent. Now, each person walking by has a certain trigger price. If the coffee is cheaper than their personal trigger price, they buy, and if the coffee is more expensive, they don’t buy.
In a perfectly efficient market, a person would be honest about their trigger price, and a business could sell their coffee to anyone whose trigger price is above 50 cents. A frugal person might walk up and pay 75 cents, while a spendthrift coffee addict in a rush would pay $4 for the same cup. Obviously, this wouldn’t work in the real world, so stores have to find a way around this. Getting people to pay as close to their trigger price as possible is called price-targeting.
Instead, you have the current Starbucks menu = an entire wall of caffeinated options differing slightly by roast, size, flavoring, and preparation. When I need to get out of the house, I usually go in and get an iced coffee for about $2. They will add milk, or I can add it myself and you can get their syrup sweetener for free since sugar packets are hard to dissolve in cold drinks. Alternatively, a frappaccino is basically the same time but blended with some whipped cream for $3.50. So the “frugal” version is for the people looking to spend $2 on coffee, and the “premium” frapp is for those willing to spend over $3. The frapp probably cost around 10 cents more to make, while Starbucks made an additional $1 in profit.
A similar thing takes place in supermarkets, and is summarized well in this CFP Board newsletter article Taking Aim at Price Targeting:
Imagine you’re at the supermarket and want to buy a bag of chips. If you tend to be an impulse shopper, grabbing the first thing you see, you’ll likely end up with the most expensive chips available, conveniently placed at eye level by the supermarket’s thoughtful management. If you’re bargain conscious, however, a brief scan of the shelves will reveal cheaper chips tucked away closer to floor level. By offering similar products at different prices, the supermarket can make everybody happy: the impulse shopper gets her chips, the bargain hunter gets his bargain, and the supermarket maximizes profits from both types of customer. “In price targeting, customers pay what they are willing to pay,” Harford says. “It doesn’t depend on being a sucker. It’s even a good thing because if companies weren’t able to target, then nobody would get the lower prices.”
This is also why supermarkets have sales on a rotating range of products, instead of the same products or just lowering prices in general. The price-sensitive frugal folks will pretty much only buy what is on sale, and they’ll be drawn in and the store will make a little profit with slimmer margins. The people who never check what is on sale or are just buying ingredients required for a specific recipe will end up buying a lot of non-sale items which are marked up at a higher profit margin. Again, the store tries to get as close to a “perfect” market as possible.
The lesson? Be aware of price-targeting, be aware of your own tendencies, and look around to make sure you’re getting the best price when presented with a variety of options.