A Cheap Employee Is … a Cheap Employee: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called "A Cheap Employee Is ... a Cheap Employee." 

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It's about the question of whether low-paid employees are indeed a good deal for a retailer's bottom line as the conventional wisdom states.

The piece begins with a couple of stories from blog readers, Eric M. Jones and Jamie Crouthamel, which were solicited earlier here. (One of the true pleasures of operating this blog is having a channel by which to turn readers into radio guests -- thanks!)

The Fixed Costs of Retailing Bourbon

The Bourbon Outfitter in Lexington, Kentucky sells souvenirs and paraphernalia related to bourbon distilling and drinking. Its only physical retail outlet is a kiosk in a shopping mall; and its selling season is the Christmas shopping period. Its difficulty is that the mall will only rent kiosk space in three-month intervals—the kiosk is a fixed cost to The Outfitter, which has come up with the following solution: It rents the kiosk from November through January, and opens on November 1, sufficient time before Black Friday to make an impression on shoppers. It stays open until New Year's and then closes down.

The owner tells me that this is a profit-maximizing policy, since the variable cost of remaining open after New Year’s Day far exceeds the trickle of revenue that might flow in.

[HT to BK]

Abercrombie's "Situation" Subsidy Sunk its Stock Price Right? Not Quite

So this morning, Abercrombie and Fitch reported solid earnings for the second quarter. Its revenue was up 23% off strong international sales, and its net income rose 64% to $0.35 a share, beating Wall Street estimates of $0.29. So how come its stock price closed down nearly 9% today?

If you believe the knee-jerk mythology of the Internet, the answer's simple: The Situation. Here's the story: On Tuesday, the market closed with Abercrombie stock above $70 a share. That night, the Ohio-based company released a statement (strangely dated Aug. 12) titled “A Win-Win Situation,” in which it announced that it had "offered compensation" to Michael "The Situation" Sorentino to "cease" wearing its clothes. Here's the entire statement:

We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's The Jersey Shore to have the character wear an alternate brand. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently waiting a response."

The Costco Effect: Why Does the Wholesaler Cause Inflation?

There's a lot of data showing that Walmart causes prices to decline when it enters a local market (see here, here and here). Why then, according to a new study, does Costco have the opposite effect, and cause competitors to raise their prices? The answer boils down to the complex ways that stores choose to compete against each other, and shows that not all big box retailers are created equal. Here's the abstract:

Prior research shows grocery stores reduce prices to compete with Walmart Supercenters. This study finds evidence that the competitive effects of two other big box retailers – Costco and Walmart-owned Sam's Club – are quite different. Using city-level panel grocery price data matched with a unique data set on Walmart and warehouse club locations, we find that Costco entry is associated with higher grocery prices at incumbent retailers, and that the effect is strongest in cities with small populations and high grocery store densities. This is consistent with incumbents competing with Costco along non-price dimensions such as product quality or quality of the shopping experience. We find no evidence that Sam’s Club entry affects grocery stores’ prices, consistent with Sam’s Club’s focus on small businesses instead of consumers.