Undercover Economist

Illuminating advice on the dark art of ‘drip pricing’

“You inched towards the dark side,” joked one behavioural economist after he read a recent column in which I hinted that his field has some merits. It was a quip that got me thinking, because behavioural economics does indeed have a dark side. Behavioural economists study the psychology of economic decision-making, and if they are any good at their task they will discover something the unscrupulous salesman could use to his advantage.

A behavioural economist turned rogue would exploit the “endowment effect” – a tendency for people to put a higher value on something that they feel they already own. He or she would also try to create the sense that consumers would lose out if they did not buy, because people seem to hate the idea of losing £5 much more than they like the idea of gaining £5.

Third, our rogue economist would attempt to suggest an “anchor” value that was much higher than the asking price, which would make the product seem cheap. It doesn’t seem to be hard to create such anchor values: they can be produced by inviting experimental subjects to write down the last two digits of their social security number.

Fourth, he or she would make the pricing as complex as possible so that people struggled to compare one offer with a rival offer. Fifth, he or she would try to create a sense of social approval – everyone is buying this. Finally, a rogue economist would throw in something free.

Many unscrupulous salesmen have figured this advice out for themselves already. Think of infomercials. “The TimCo smokemaster doesn’t retail for £200; it doesn’t retail for £100; it doesn’t retail for £50 … ” (anchoring to a price of £200) … “if our lines are busy, please try later” (social approval) … “the smokemaster is not available in regular stores” (loss aversion) … “but wait! When you buy the TimCo smokemaster you get the TimCo soup knife absolutely free” (complex pricing and use of “free”).

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has been turning to behavioural economists for advice on such tactics, and has found that there is no pricing scheme more pernicious than “drip pricing”. Under the scheme, customers agree to pay a price only to discover that there is a charge for delivery; another charge for paying by credit card, and another for insurance. Drip pricing taps into the endowment effect, because customers feel that they have already made the decision to purchase; it creates loss aversion because customers commit time and effort to the search before being hit with extra charges; and it is a form of complex pricing which makes it hard to compare offers.

The OFT research, conducted by consultants and academics at University College London, was based on a laboratory experiment in which students sat at a computer and were presented with hypothetical deals from two fictional retailers. The students were beguiled with various marketing tricks and had to decide from whom to purchase, in what quantity, and after how costly a search. There was no trick quite so guaranteed to confound them as drip pricing, in which they were hit first with an extra charge for handling and then with a charge for shipping. (A two-part drip is modest: according to the OFT, one package holiday provider used four unavoidable “drips”, and two computer retailers tacked on seven optional ones.)

The OFT has been firing warning shots about drip pricing, but it will have its work cut out to regulate it – there is usually some loophole through which price drippers can slip. Buyers should remember that if they walk away when the drips start to fall, they won’t get soaked.

Also published at ft.com.