Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blackberry Queuing and Screening Mechanism

Indonesia always provides us with interesting cases from economic perspective. The latest one is the new Blackberry product launching where the seller gave a 50% discount to 1,000 first purchasers. It was a major event as people rushed to Pacific Place mall to buy the product. Unfortunately there are some casualties, as there is an excessive amount of buyers and the mall is not big enough for all of them. While we can ask why didn't the seller stop the visitors as soon as they reach 1,000 to avoid unnecessary casualties, one may ask why did the seller choose this marketing strategy? Cafe Salemba economists provide their answers in these two nice articles: Economics of Queuing and More on Buying Frenzies. Meanwhile, I'll analyze the case from the Seller's perspective.

There are a lot of different types of buyers. Some are very conscious about the price of a product, so if the price is too high for them, they won't buy it. In the recent Blackberry case, we can argue that the seller used this understanding to actually screen its potential buyers and therefore they can get more buyers. The Blackberry's price is around 4,5 million rupiah. By all means, it is not a cheap gadget, but we know that such price is higher than the price in the United States and there is a theory that the price of the Blackberry in Indonesia is being inflated while the demand is still high in average. In short, it could be a very good business.

Now, by imposing a 50% discount to the price, there are two benefits that the seller can get. First, it can get those buyers who previously thought that Blackberry is overrated and therefore don't value Blackberry that high or people who want to have Blackberry but doesn't have enough money. Giving a 50% discount is still a good way to induce people to buy products. To the extent that this people don't highly value their time (they don't have better thing to do, or the utility of getting the Blackberry is higher from standing in the hellish queue, etc), these people will definitely enter the queue.

Second, the process can effectively screen the buyers who value their time more than their cash and get them to also buy the Blackberry with the inflated price. By giving such a hellish condition in the queue, the seller can know the people who will choose to skip the queue by paying more. No wonder that at the same time, the seller also conducted an exclusive sale using the original price. That's smart.

Now, we know that the seller imposed a restriction that the buyers in the queue cannot be represented by other people. Why do you think so? If there is no such restriction, the people who value time more than their cash will be induced to pay other people to stand in the queue for them, and that will disturb the screening mechanism. The seller definitely doesn't want to subsidize the people who value their time more. However, as we understand, the costs for supervision is also high. Therefore, they didn't conduct a full supervision, instead, they just let people rush in. Why?

There is an elementary game theory involved here. The seller knew that the costs for supervising the entire process would be high, managing thousands of people is not easy. But the buyers didn't know that information. Some will predict that the seller will be strict with the rules, some will predict that the seller will be lenient, and there will be chaos. Whatever the end result is, it is still a good way to screen the people who are not really sure with the value of their money versus their time but nevertheless have some interests to buy the Blackberry. If these people are risk averse, or prone to risks, they will probably not go to the queue and they will buy the product later on. For those who really want the Blackberry but don't have enough money, they will stay. For the people who value their time more and put their jockeys in the queue, they put a bet, if they get it, it would be nice, if not, they buy it later on and risk some money for the jockeys. Again, risk aversion matters, not all people want to risk their money for nothing and so they may decide not to do it.

Overall speaking, from the seller's perspective, there is a probability that the discounted products will be purchased by its unintended targets, i.e. the people who value their money less than their time. But it should not be many, and the seller can still effectively increase the demand of its products and reap more profits. So instead of being a sign of irrationality, it might be a good indication for good strategy for getting more buyers. Unless there are other additional high costs to the sellers for these kind of activities (i.e. death, riot, etc), we can expect more sellers to pursue the same strategy. So, two suggestions to improve the end result for consumers, next time it would be better to give a time limit for coming to the place and also limit the people who can stay in the location when they reach 1,000 or whatever the intended maximum amount of buyers is.

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