Predatory pricing in multi-sided platforms

Over the last few days, living and commuting in Nuremberg, I realised that I was not missing Uber. While just about a month ago, commuting for a week in suburban Paris, I was completely dependent on Uber for even the shortest of distances. The penetration of public transport and my familiarity with the city of Nuremberg aside, I began wondering how would Uber price its services in a city like Nuremberg (when it enters here, which I doubt very much would happen in the next few years), where public transport is omni-present, efficient, and affordable. It surely should adopt predatory pricing.

In this post, I will elaborate on the concept of predatory pricing in the context of multi-sided platforms.

Theory alert! If you are uncomfortable with theory, skip directly to the illustration and come back to read the theory.

What is predatory pricing?

Economists and policy makers concerned about market efficiencies and fair competition have been obsessed with the concept of predatory pricing for a long time. The most common definition of predatory pricing is through the application of the conventional Areeda-Turner test. Published way back in 1975, in spite of its limitations, most countries and courts have used it consistently, due to, in some ways, lack of any credible alternative.

The Areeda-Turner test is based on two basic premises. The recoupment premise states that the firm indulging in predatory pricing should be able to predict and be confident of its ability to recoup the losses through higher profits as competition exits the market. The assumption is that the firm could reasonably anticipate the (opportunity) costs of predatory pricing, as well as have an estimate of the future value of monopoly profits; and the net present value of such predatory pricing to push competition out of the market should be positive and attractive. In plain English, the firm should be able to project the effect of lower prices in terms of lower competition and higher profits in the future.

How low can this predatory price be? That is the subject of the second premise – the AVC premise. The firm’s prices (at business as usual volumes) should be below its average variable costs (AVC), or marginal costs in the short run. If the prices were indeed above the AVC, the firm would argue that they are indeed more efficient than competition, due to any of their resources, processes, or organisational arrangements. It is when the price falls below the AVC that the question of unfair competition arises – the firm might be subsidising its losses.

Take for instance, a start-up that is piloting an innovative technology. It may price its products/ services at a price below the AVC to gain valuable feedback from its lead users, but in the absence of a recoupment premise such pricing might not qualify as predatory pricing. On the other hand, imagine a new entrant with superior technology who can bring costs down to a level where the prices fall below the marginal costs of the competitors but stay well above the firm’s AVC, it is just disrupting the market.

Only when both the conditions are met, i.e., when the predator’s prices are below the AVC and the firm could project the extent of recoupment due to monopoly profits as competition exits the market, that we call it predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing in MSPs

There has been a lot of discussion about how ecommerce firms in India have been indulging in predatory pricing and how various platforms have been going under. I had written about subsidies and freebies from a consumer perspective a few months ago (Free… continue hoyenga). Let us discuss how and why it is difficult to assess if a lower-than-competition price is indeed predatory in the context of multi-sided platforms (MSPs).

  1. Multi-sided platforms have a unique problem to solve in their early days, that of network mobilisation. A situation that is like a chicken-egg problem, or a Penguin problem, where “nobody joins unless everyone joins” is prevalent in establishing a two-sided or multi-sided platform (for more details about the Penguin problem and network mobilisation strategies, read my earlier post here). In order to build a sufficient user base on one side, a common strategy is to subsidise, even provide the services free.
  2. Another common feature of MSPs is the existence of subsidy-sides and money-sides of users. The platform might subsidise one side of users and make money from the other side, while incurring costs of providing services to both sides, depending on the relative price elasticities and willingness to affiliate with the other side of the platform. And the prices for the subsidy side would surely below costs for that side. It is imperative that the overall costs and prices are considered while analysing these pricing strategies.
  3. These cross-side network effects will surely force the platforms to price their services most efficiently across both the sides. Even for the money side, the platform might not be able to charge extraordinary prices as such prices would themselves act against the sustenance of these cross-side network effects. It is likely that these extra-normal profits would evaporate through subsidies on the other side to keep the network effects active. Imagine a situation where a B2B marketplace charged the sellers higher than normal prices, only large (and desperate) sellers would affiliate with the marketplace, leading to buyers (the subsidy side) leaving the platform. In order to keep the buyers interested, the marketplace might either have to broaden the base of sellers by optimising the prices, or provide extraordinary subsidies to the buyers to keep them interested. So in order to maintain the equilibrium, the platform would have to price the sides efficiently.
  4. Finally, in a competitive situation, not all competitors might follow the same price structure. So, a reduction of prices by one competitor for one side of the market may not force all other competitors to reduce prices; they may just encourage multi-homing (allowing users to use competitive products simultaneously) or manipulate the price on the other side of users.

So, a direct application of the Areeda-Turner test might not be appropriate while studying predatory pricing in the context of MSPs.

An illustration

Let us imagine a market for home tutors supporting school students. The market is inherently geographically constrained; it is very unlikely that either the teacher or the student would travel across cities for this purpose. For the time being, let us assume that there is no technology (like video conferencing) being used.

This market is apt for the entry of a multi-sided platform, like LocalTutor. This firm provides a platform for the discovery and matching of freelance tutors with students. LocalTutor monetises the student side by charging a monthly fee (that includes a platform commission), and passes on the fees to the tutor. We need to make two assumptions before we proceed with competitive entry and predatory pricing: the market is fully penetrated (all the students who are looking for tutors and tutors looking for students are all in the market) and there are no new students and tutors entering the market; and there are no special preferences between student-tutor matches, i.e., the student-tutor pair does not form a bond like a sportsperson-coach, where they begin working like a team. In other words, the tutor is seamlessly (with no loss of efficiency) replaceable.

Now imagine a new competitor enters the market and engages in predatory pricing to kick-in network effects. The new entrant, let’s call it GlobalTutor (a fictitious name), drops the student-side prices to half. In order to attract the right number and quality of tutors, GlobalTutor has to sustain the same fees that LocalTutor provides its tutors, if not more. So, it starts dipping into its capital reserves and begins paying the tutors the market rates while reducing the student fees. Anticipating a larger surge in student numbers, more tutors sign up to GlobalTutor, and seeing the number and quality of tutors on GlobalTutor (at least if it is not inferior to LocalTutor), students first start multi-homing (use both services for their different needs, like LocalTutor for mathematics and GlobalTutor for music classes), and some of them begin switching.

In a fully penetrated market, the only way for LocalTutor to compete is to respond with its price structure. It has two options – reduce the student-side prices to restrain switching and multi-homing behaviour; and tweak the tutor-side prices and incentives. The first option is straightforward; it is cost-enhancing and profit-reducing. The second option (which is not available for pipeline businesses) is interesting in the context of platform businesses.

There are various ways of responding to this threat. The intent is to arrest switching and multi-homing behaviour of tutors and students from LocalTutor to GlobalTutor.

  1. Increasing multi-homing costs of tutors by providing them with incentives based on exclusivity/ volume: Like what Uber/ Ola provides its drivers – the incentives kick-in at what the company believes is the most a driver can do when they do not multi-home. In other words, if you multi-homed, drove your car with both Ola and Uber, you would never reach those volumes required to earn your incentives in either of your platforms.
  2. Contractual exclusion: This might not be tenable in most courts of law, if these freelance tutors were not your ‘employees’. Given the tone of most courts on Uber’s relations with its driver-partners (drivers’ lack of control in most of the transaction decisions including choice of destination, pricing, and passenger choice), any such contracting would imply that the tutors would be employees, and that would significantly increase the platform’s costs (paying for employee benefits are always more expensive than outsourcing to independent service providers).
  3. Increase contract tenure: LocalTutor may increase multi-homing and switching costs by increasing the tenure of the contracting from monthly to annual. Annual contracting will reduce the flexibility that students and tutors have, and might result in reduction in volume.
  4. The next options for LocalTutor are to work at the two restraining assumptions we made at the beginning – penetration and perpetual matching. LocalTutor might want to add in more and more students and tutors and expand the market, providing unique and differentiated services like art & craft classes, preparation for science Olympiads, or other competitive tests. LocalTutor might also communicate the value of teaming of student-tutor pairs in its success stories, in a bid to dis-incentivise switching and multi-homing.

To predate or not to predate is not the question

Given the differences between pipeline and platform businesses new entrants seeking to mobilize network effects have very little option but to resort to predatory pricing. The choice is not if, but how. And as an incumbent, should you be prepared for a new entrant who would resort to predatory pricing? Surely, yes! And how? By being ready to expand the market and increasing switching and multi-homing costs. Unlike in the tutoring business that is inherently geographically constrained, a lot of businesses could span across markets. Even tutoring could leverage technology to reach a global audience.

Just one comforting thought, predatory pricing as a strategy to eliminate competition is inefficient in the long run. The new entrant might adopt predatory pricing to eliminate competition in the short run, but the act of predatory pricing breaks down most barriers to entry, and sends signals to others that there is a market that is easy to enter. It might attract a more highly capitalised competitor to enter the market with the same strategies … making the market a ‘contestable market’. And no one wants to make a fortune in a contestable market, right? More on competing in contestable markets, subsequently.


© 2017. R Srinivasan


Author: Srinivasan R

Professor of Strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. All views are personal. The views and opinions expressed here are of the author, and not those of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore; and are not intended to endorse, harm, malign, or defame any individual, group, or organisation.

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