Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fish and Game Dept. targets Asian Supermarket - Flawed Economics in Action

A daring sting operation has brought down another set of dangerous criminals in our midst. The proprietors of Great Wall supermarket (located about 20 minutes from where I live) have been arrested for selling "wild" sea animals including live frogs, crayfish, turtles, eels, and more. The store owners say that all of their stock comes from farmed sources, but that does not appear to be convincing the crusading Commonwealth bureaucrats.

Officer Rich Landers, of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, had this to say:
“History has show when wildlife becomes commercialized, the population dwindles,” Landers said. “Whether it’s elephant tusks or whales, we are trying to reduce the chances that wildlife becomes commercialized.”
Lets take a moment and think of a heavily commercialized animal population, like cows. We may have another disaster on our hands: the cow population is down to the lowest level since 1958, with only 92.6 million in the United States! An estimated 25 million cows are slaughtered each year. That means that in less than four years, there won't be any cows left in the United States. Savor your steaks while you can!

See what's wrong with this story? While commercialization allows animals to be consumed, it also creates strong incentives to rebuild the population for future consumption as well. That's why the decline in the cow population has been in response to reduced profitability of cattle ranching... not an ecological shortfall. Why would this be any different for farmed eels, turtles, or fish?

The historical examples that Landers uses are all cases where no one had ownership rights over the stock of animals being hunted, and therefore no reason to maintain sustainable population levels. That is clearly not the case here when we are discussing farmed seafood.

If anything, the proprietors of Great Wall should be applauded, for meeting consumer demand for uncommon (by American standards) foodstuffs. That way, Asian families can eat farmed eels etc. and do not have to catch them wild or import from abroad, potentially bringing exotic animal diseases to afflict U.S. ecosystems.

I won't go so far as to accuse the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries of racism or xenophobia, as I'm sure they'd be just as happy to apply their short-sighted and fallacious brand of reasoning to a predominantly-American grocery store as well. But, charging honest business owners with felonies, for selling live turtles and bass, does not inspire much confidence in either the agency's competence or its underlying motives.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

First Textbook in Social Media Marketing

Blatant self-promotion, but I can't resist.

(c) Cengage Learning 2013.
The book that I helped write is now in print. Find it here. Many thanks to my co-authors as well as the professionals at Cengage Learning for making this possible.

While intended to accompany a college- or graduate-level marketing course, I think this text does a pretty good job of encapsulating the advice that can be found in other prominent trade books, in addition to presenting some original and innovative material (I'm especially proud of Chapter 3). As far as I know, it's the most thorough treatment of social media marketing that can be found in one place. A boon to students and aspiring professionals alike. A magnum opus indeed.

Hyperbole aside, I'm very pleased with how the book turned out. I hope that some other people are able to derive utility from it as well.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Durable Goods Problem in Software

Being a monopolist isn't all it's cracked up to be. Produce a durable good, and you're functionally competing against yourself.

For a Durable Goods Producer with Market Power:
Problem 1: durable goods can be re-sold. If re-sale purchases are cheap and reliable, why buy new?
Problem 2: after selling at high price, the firm wants to reduce price to get more customers. So, if you're a customer, you shound wait for the lower price to purchase... If you're the firm, how can you ever manage to sell at the high price?

Software is perhaps the ultimate in durable products. Once you have the program installed, it never wears out. Resale is prohibited by license agreements and made impractical by other technical means, but the second problem remains. How can software companies prevent consumers for holding out and demanding cheaper prices?

Big players in the software industry have found various ways to overcome this durable goods problem.

1) Bundling. Most famously, Microsoft got its big start by combining the Windows operating system with IBM machines. While the software may be durable, the computer most definitely is not. Replacement of consumer products guarantees repeat customers for their OS. Waiting doesn't help the consumer, because they retailer they purchase from will have to get a copy of Windows regardless.

2) Ongoing payment schemes. Subscription fees, downloadable content, and micro-payments have been used successfully by companies from Blizzard to Zynga. In addition to providing a check against piracy, each of these pricing methods ensure the up-front cost is only a small part of what the consumer pays for that software. Holding out for a lower price on the base product doesn't exempt someone from paying for the extras.

3) Build price discounts into the sales model. Some video game marketing tools (I'm thinking of Steam, from Valve software) build semi-frequent sales into their distribution channel. Users can buy a new game when it comes out at full price; wait a few months for the game to go on sale at 33% or 50% off; or wait several years to get it at deep discount. The amount paid depends on the gamer's urgency in wanting the game. It's temporal price discrimination which separates out high- and low-demanding users.

Software companies still end up competing against themselves to some degree, but with these sorts of pricing mechanics they're able to keep revenue higher than it would be otherwise.