The Downside of Smoking Pot?

I am not sure how else to explain this e-mail, received from a reader whose name I shall withhold:

So there is this weird thing going on at CVS that I have to at least make record of, maybe talk about. I am constantly lured there and I walk the wiles, grab a few things, and the bill ALWAYS adds up to whatever amount of money I have in my pocket. If I have $54.32, on three occasions the total added up to exactly the amount I had, and on two other occasions it was within a dollar of being the exact amount. It’s like if I played roulette and always guessed right. Now I can’t talk about it, and these fucks know that, so they do it every time I go to CVS. I boycotted CVS but they lure me there anytime I am even close there. I swore myself to secrecy but the problem is I don’t have a lot of friends and under a condition of secrecy, I get lured to CVS constantly.

When the Store Gets Crowded, the Shopper Buys Safety

A new research paper (abstract; PDF) by Ahreum Maeng, Robin J. Tanner, and Dilip Soman looks at how a shopping environment affects buying patterns. From the press release:

New research by Ahreum Maeng, an assistant professor in the KU School of Business, finds that socially crowded environments lead consumers to be more conservative. Specifically, Maeng finds that consumers in crowded settings prefer safety-oriented options and are more receptive to prevention-framed messages than promotional messages — for example, preferring a toothpaste offering cavity protection over a toothpaste promising a whiter smile. Maeng also finds consumers in crowded settings are less willing to make risky investments. 

“Consumers in crowded environments get conservative and safety-focused,” Maeng said. “We believe this is because people in socially crowded settings activate an avoidance system that results in a more prevention-focused mindset. This, in turn, makes socially crowded individuals more likely to choose options that provide prevention-focused benefits.” 

Maeng points out that the research has important implications for retailers as well as policymakers.  “For example, our findings indicate a store would benefit by selling and marketing products differently on a crowded Saturday during the holidays versus a Tuesday morning in August,” she says. “And even within the same day, stores might consider changing their signage or product placement to account for different levels of crowding.”

Is a Factory Outlet Good for the Bottom Line?

A new working paper (gated) by Yi Qian, Eric Anderson, and Duncan Simester looks at how a factory or outlet store affects a retailer's regular-priced products. Using 12 years' worth of data from a U.S. apparel retailer, they found that the factory store contributed positively to the business: 

We study how the opening of a factory store impacts a retailer’s demand in its other channels. It is possible that a factory store may damage a retailer's brand image and lead to substitution away from its higher quality core channels. Alternatively, the opening of a factory store may have positive effects as it may attract new buyers and serve as a form of brand advertising. In this paper, we use a natural experiment that arises from a retailer introducing a factory store in 2002. We analyze data that spans all customers and all channels from 1995 to 2007. This allows for careful pre and post analysis of the factory store opening. We find that the introduction of the factory store led to substantial positive spillovers to the core channels that lasted for multiple years. Customers purchase more items from the higher priced, higher quality channels after the factory store is opened. These positive spillovers represent approximately 17% of all of the incremental sales that result from the factory store opening (the other 83% are contributed by sales in the factory store itself).

FREAK-Shot: Christmas Ornament Edition

Reader Tim Kelly sends in photo from a store in Lombard, Illinois:

As Tim writes:

I spotted an interesting sign while out Christmas shopping the other day.  The sign stated the company's "breakage policy," where any broken item must be bought, but that the store will only charge half price on the broken item.  The sign continued offered to repair the broken item, free of charge (I confirmed the free repairs from the shop owner, as it is not explicitly stated in the sign).

The sign was located on a mall kiosk selling Christmas ornaments.  I imagine breakage is a big issue for such a shop, as their product is relatively fragile and are highly enticing to bored kids stuck Christmas shopping with their parents.

My initial instinct upon seeing the sign was that this policy seemed to be inviting people to game the system.

Sex and Chocolate: Complements or Substitutes?

The attached picture is a display at the local CVS in Ann Arbor, Mich. My thought was that this shelf display is a great example of complements: Enjoy a chocolate bar together, and who knows what nice things might follow?  My son thought that it depicted  substitutes — no luck in love, so drown your sorrows by eating chocolate.  I don’t know who is correct, but the example illustrates well the fact the complementarity/substitutability can depend on the specific situation being examined.

Why It Pays to Pay Employees More

We blogged a while back about how some retail firms succeed by hiring more, not fewer, floor employees, and by treating them particularly well. Among the examples: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods; among the counterexamples: Michael's.

This prompted an e-mail from Hal Varian, Google's chief economist. (If you don't know of Hal you should, as he's an impressive and fascinating guy -- check out the Q&A he did here a few years back.) His e-mail reads:

Saw your piece about Trader Joe's et al.  Here's one reason to pay people more than their market wage (from my textbook):

Gabor Varszegi has made millions by providing high-quality service in his photo developing shops in Budapest. (See Steven Greenhouse, "A New Formula in Hungary: Speed Service and Grow Rich," New York Times, June 5, 1990, A1.)

Varszegi says that he got his start as a businessman in the mid-sixties by playing bass guitar and managing a rock group. "Back then," he says, "the only private businessmen in Eastern Europe were rock musicians." He introduced one-hour film developing to Hungary in 1985; the next best alternative to his one-hour developing shops was the state-run agency that took one month.

Question of the Day: What Are Your Best — and Worst — Retail Experiences?

We're working on a new Freakonomics Radio piece about what might best be called "retail etiquette." It was inspired in part by this blog post, about how the quantity and quality of employees affects a company's bottom line; and by this e-mail from a listener named Dawn Nordquist:

I’ve noticed that, at the beginning of the podcasts, a short banter between the two of you is included regarding thanking the listening audience.  Thanking the listening audience aside, what are your thoughts/observations on thanking in commercial transactions?  I have recently been struck by how often I am not thanked when purchasing something.

Michaels Going Public: Coincidence?

Yesterday we published a post about how some retailers spend a lot of money and effort on their employees, how other retailers spend much less, and how that difference affects shoppers.

I mentioned finding long lines and few cashiers at the arts-and-crafts store Michaels. And I wrote this too:

FWIW, critics — especially Democratic critics — may note that Michaels is a chain that went public a long time ago, expanded widely, and was taken private in 2006 when it was acquired by two investment firms: the Blackstone Group and, yes, Bain Capital.

How Many Workers Is the Right Number for a Retailer? Stories from Trader Joe's, Michaels, and Whole Foods

A reader named Quinton White points us to an interesting article by Jim Surowiecki in The New Yorker about how retails firms are succeeding by hiring more workers and spending more money training and rewarding them. Surowiecki writes:

A recent Harvard Business Review study by Zeynep Ton, an M.I.T. professor, looked at four low-price retailers: Costco, Trader Joe’s, the convenience-store chain QuikTrip, and a Spanish supermarket chain called Mercadona. These companies have much higher labor costs than their competitors. They pay their employees more; they have more full-time workers and more salespeople on the floor; and they invest more in training them. (At QuikTrip, even part-time employees get forty hours of training.) Not surprisingly, these stores are better places to work. What’s more surprising is that they are more profitable than most of their competitors and have more sales per employee and per square foot.

Location, Location, Location

One of the private-sector retail stores adjacent to the main Austin cemetery sells grave monuments and related items, while another is a major gardening center. These are sensible location decisions—these retailers provide convenience to customers who will be using the cemetery.

A similar example is provided by the locational choice of our sons’ orthodontist—directly across the street from the local middle school. These are examples of agglomeration economies, but are in the retail sector and based on consumer demand, not production.

I wonder what are other good/bizarre examples in which small retail firms’ locational choices are determined by the fixed location of a major public facility that attracts potential customers? Brothels next to seaports?