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Why It Pays to Pay Employees More

(Photo: Peter)

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.

Varszegi follows two rules in labor relations: he never hires anyone who worked under Communism, and he pays his workers four times the market wage.  This makes perfect sense in light of the above remarks about monitoring costs: there are very few employees per store and monitoring their behavior is very costly.  If there were only a small penalty to being fired, there would be great temptation to slack off. By paying the workers much more than they could get elsewhere, Varszegi makes it very costly for them to be fired — and reduces his monitoring costs significantly.