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James Surowiecki from The New Yorker (and Wisdom of Crowds fame) discusses the recent ‘price war’ that broke out between Wal-Mart and Amazon:

[L]ike other price wars: all the companies involved got hurt. So you might wonder why Wal-Mart recently decided to start its own price war, taking on Amazon in the online book market. Wal-Mart began by marking down the prices of ten best-sellers—including the new Stephen King and the upcoming Sarah Palin—to ten bucks. When Amazon, predictably, matched that price, Wal-Mart went to nine dollars, and, when Amazon matched again, Wal-Mart went to $8.99, at which point Amazon rested. (Target, too, jumped in, leading Wal-Mart to drop to $8.98.) Since wholesale book prices are traditionally around fifty per cent off the cover price, and these books are now marked down sixty per cent or more, Amazon and Wal-Mart are surely losing money every time they sell one of the discounted titles. The more they sell, the less they make. That doesn’t sound like good business.

Except, of course, when the purpose of the price slashing is not to actually sell more of those particular books, but to attract more buyers to their on-line marketplace:

So why did they go to war? The answer is that they didn’t, really. Sure, Wal-Mart is making a statement that it’s a player in the online world, but the real goal of this conflict isn’t to lure readers away from Amazon, and it isn’t to get people to buy one of those ten books. It’s to lure them online, away from big booksellers and other retailers, and then sell them other stuff. Usually, price wars wreak havoc because they erode the pricing power of an entire business. But, because this price war involves just ten items, its impact on revenue will be small, and outweighed by the positive effects of all the publicity. (It has garnered publicity because it involves books. A big banana price war has been raging in Britain, but you probably haven’t heard about it.) It’s textbook loss-leader economics.

Outraged book publishers and booksellers are making exaggerated claims about how the discounts will devalue books and wreck the industry. But they’re right about one thing. The real competition in this price war is not between Wal-Mart and Amazon but between those behemoths and everyone else—and the damage everyone else is incurring is deliberate, not collateral. Wal-Mart and Amazon have figured out how to fight a price war and win: make sure someone else takes the blows.

Pretty much the same idea behind much of Google’s services that are essentially provided for free–the more people are tied to the Internet, the better for Google”s business overall.

(Via Cheap Talk)