Surge pricing for food delivery: when not to use surge pricing?

This post comes to you from Friedrich Alexander Universitat Erlangen-Nuremberg, where I am visiting for the past one week. I have been teaching a course on Platform Strategies here for the past four years. While in Nuremberg, the question has always been about food, how does a vegetarian, teetotaler survive in Franconia, Bavaria, Germany? To be fair, I have had great vegetarian food here in Nuremberg over the past so many years, and this year has been exceptional – we (my teaching assistant and I) have found great Indian restaurants, that I have had an Indian vegetarian meal for dinner every day of my stay here (except one night of Italian food). Thank you, Nuremberg.

Coming back to food, I was intrigued when I read in the Uber company blog (read it here) that Uber Eats (Uber’s food delivery service) would begin charging customers surge pricing. Much like the way they charge for their  ride-hailing services. I began looking for when and how surge pricing can work. I believe it is a function of customer willingness to pay in part, but most importantly, the platform’s ability to scale up and down service levels at will on the other part.

Economics of the surge

A market is made up of demand, supply, pricing and the norms around exchange. For a market to function, the norms of exchange should be fair and acceptable to the transacting parties. Some markets are defined by the actions of intermediaries who set the norms of exchange, like a stock exchange, a municipal council, or a platform like Uber. In most cases, these intermediaries are third parties in the true sense of the word, “third”, meaning independent of the transacting parties. And in a ‘efficient market’, the intermediary sets the boundaries of behaviours of the transacting parties, and let them transact with little or no involvement. However, in platforms like Uber, the intermediary takes a much larger role, say in pricing. It not only decides the prices of the rides (for both riders and drivers), it also uses pricing as a tool to modify demand and supply conditions. Surge pricing is used as a mechanism to increase supply of cars (by motivating more driver partners to join the system at that point of time), and decrease the demand for cars (by getting riders to either postpone their rides to off-peak times or move away from Uber to other modes of transport, like bus or train). There is enough that has been written about surge pricing, including in this very blog, previously.

Surge pricing in food delivery

Alison Griswold wrote in the Quartz online magazine about why surge pricing for food delivery by Uber Eats is a bad idea (read his article here). She definitely writes wonderful stories about the sharing economy. She argues that once Uber Eats introduces surge pricing, customers would shift away from Uber, and move on to other services, may be even Amazon (with its Prime services). Given that food delivery services do not have high multi-homing costs (customers can simultaneously affiliate with multiple service providers at the same time), and some services may cater to special preferences like a specific cuisine, customers might surely switch in terms of choosing their delivery partner, their restaurant choice, or both. But that can be overcome by just simple speed and other aspects of service quality.

However, her main argument is that the economics of surge pricing might work for increasing more delivery partners to join the system in times of peak demand, but might not get the restaurants to produce more food. She avers that increasing the supply of food available for delivery is not the same as increasing the supply of delivery partners. Fair point. But, don’t restaurants anyway plan for increase in food supply during lunch and dinner times? Don’t they build in some buffer of raw material, ingredients, and/ or semi-processed food before they toss them on the stove? Aren’t there some limits to which they can extend?

Where does surge pricing not work?

Surge pricing works in markets where the intermediaries can, at least at the margin, increase the supply of goods and services and/ or decrease the demand for goods and services. In the case of ride-hailing services, surge pricing can shift people away from ride-hailing to use buses/ trains or just walk. Surge pricing works best when there is idle capacity not available to the users – when the driver partners are present but are themselves taking a break (not logged in) and are not available to take rides. Surge pricing motivates these ‘idle’ capacity to join the market, and restores the balance. In summary, surge pricing works when the demand side has ‘substitutes’ and the supply side has ‘excess capacity’.

If either of these conditions are not met, surge pricing might not work. Take an instance when a cricket/ football game or a concert ends in the middle of the night, and there are no public transportation options. Any amount of surge pricing is unlikely to reduce the demand for cars. Or try surge pricing of rail tickets in Indian trains. Any amount of surge pricing is not going to motivate the rail authorities to increase capacity to balance the market (I am not even convinced it should be called surge pricing – it is just differential pricing of different tickets, depending on whether I am the first person booking the seat or the last). In both of these conditions, differential pricing might be grudgingly accepted by the transacting parties, without any impact on the demand-supply mismatches. Take for example, Kayani Bakery in Pune, India, where by noon they are sold out! Surely, no amount of surge pricing is motivating these businessmen to increase supply. In fact, the scarcity increases the demand for these biscuits.

What are the welfare effects of surge pricing?

Scarcity principle tells us that when supply is far less than demand, prices will rise to ensure that supply matches demand. In an ideal world, both supply will increase and demand will fall. However, in contexts where supply is limited or inelastic, it will be demand that has to come down. In the case of essential goods and services (inelastic demand), prices continue to rise to point where only the wealthy could afford it. This is precisely the reason why governments indulge in market intervention mechanisms. For those interested in how commodity prices can bring down governments, read this!

The lesson for platform business firms: engage in surge pricing only when you can work towards increasing supply, or your demand side has (at least imperfect) substitutes.

(c) 2016. Srinivasan R

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Surge Pricing: The importance of focusing on the supply side

The Delhi Government, Karnataka Government, and even the Union Transport Ministry in India has been sieged with this issue of surge pricing by taxi aggregators. While there has been a lot written about surge pricing (see my earlier post, more than a month back), a lot of what I read is incomplete, misleading, and sometimes even biased. Here is adding to the debate, by clarifying what surge pricing and how it differs from other models of price setting. And I draw policy implications for dealing with the phenomenon by focusing on the supply side, rather than focus on just the price.

What is surge pricing?

Surge pricing is an economic incentive provided to the suppliers of goods and services to enhance the supply of products/ services available in times of higher demand in the market by (a) incentivising those suppliers who provide them, (b) ensuring that these suppliers do not go off the market in such times, and (c) rationalise demand through fulfilling only price inelastic demand. As a driver in a taxi aggregator system, it makes economic sense for the driver not to take his breaks during the peak demand times, and ensuring that only those riders who desperately need the service, and are price inelastic avail the service. A price sensitive customer should ideally move off the aggregator to a road-side hailing service (if available, as in Mumbai) or simply take public transport.

Who is a typical surge pricing customer?

A recent study talked about riders being more willing to accept surge pricing when their phone batteries are about to die, and they need to conserve the same (read here) before they reach home. A city with good public transportation infrastructure that is designed for peak hour loads should ideally witness the least surge pricing (please don’t ask me about Bangalore, or should I say Bengaluru?). In most Indian cities, the typical cab aggregator rider is someone who is a regular user of cabs and autorikshaws (three wheel vehicles) to commute short and medium distances. Typically either the origin or destination of the ride is in the city centre or a high-traffic area (like a train station or airport). It is when the public transportation infrastructure fails that these riders are forced to use cabs for their regular (predictable) transport needs.

Let us take an example of an entrepreneur (call her Lakshmi, named after the Hindu Goddess of Wealth) whose work place is in the city centre and she commutes about 15km every day. She should ideally use public transport, or if her route is not well connected she should have her own SUV or a sedan (remember her name!). She would possibly have a driver if her work involves driving around the city to meet customers/ partners, or her daily work start and close time are not predictable. The only time she would use a cab aggregator is when she is riding to places with poor parking infrastructure, for leisure, or say a place of worship. She is price inelastic.

Take another example of a front office executive at a hotel. Let us call him Shravan. His work times are predictable, he works on a fixed remuneration, and is most likely struggling to make ends meet. He is most often taking public transport to work, or self-driving his own budget car/ 2-wheeler. He would only take a cab aggregator for his leisure trips with his young family during the weekends; and when the entire weekend out with family is an experience in itself, he is unlikely to be price sensitive to a limit. However, when surge pricing kicks in beyond a limit, he would baulk out of the market, and take public transport or other options.

As a policy maker, the demand side (riders’) welfare should be higher on priority than that of the supply side (drivers and aggregators). The demand side is large in numbers, is fragmented, and has very few options (especially in times of high demand). Price ceilings are justified when riders who are desperate to reach are price elastic. In other words, those who need the safety, security and comfort of the taxi services cannot afford it. Like the sick desperate to reach a hospital or children reaching school/ back home on time. These are segments best served by other modes of transport, rather than taxi aggregators – the Governments of the day should invest in and/ or ensure availability of good quality healthcare transport services (ambulances) and public/ private school related transport infrastructure.

Surge pricing is dynamic pricing

Dynamic pricing is not new to the Indian economy. Almost the entire informal economy or the unorganized sector works with dynamic pricing. What the rate per hour of plumbing work in your city? Depending on the criticality of the issue, the ability of the customer to pay (as defined by the location/ quality of construction and fixtures), and the availability of plumbers, the price varies. So is the case with domestic helps, and every other service provided by the informal sector. Why even professional service firms like lawyers and accountants use dynamic pricing based on ability to pay and criticality of the issue.

What surge pricing by taxi aggregators do is to take the entire control of dynamic pricing out of the suppliers’ hands and places it with the platform. The drivers may be beneficiaries of the surge price, but they do not determine the time as well as the multiple. Plus, given that the surge price is announced at the time of cab booking, the riders have a choice to wait, change the class of service (micro, sedans, or luxury cars in the system), choose an alternative aggregator, or choose another mode of transport. A fallout of the transparency and choice argument is that the “bargaining” for price is done before the service provision, and not after the ride. This transparency and choice empowers the riders, and as long as the multiple is “reasonable”, we could trust the riders with rational economic decisions. What is reasonable may vary across riders and the criticality of the context. While Lakshmi may be willing to pay a 4x multiple on her way back from work at 9pm in Hyderabad, Shravan may only a 4x multiple at 9pm when he has to reach the hospital on time to visit his ailing mother.

Data is king

The amount of data collected by the cab companies about individual behaviour and choices can enable the aggregator design appropriate pricing structures, customised to each customer, a segment of one. For instance, Uber can run micro-experiments with surge pricing and tease Shravan with different multiples at different points of time/ origin-destination combinations, and learn about Shravan’s willingness to pay, far more than what he can articulate it himself. Powered with the data, Uber should be able to define something like ‘Shravan will accept a surge price of at most 2.2x, as he is trying to return home from his workplace at 10.30pm on a Friday evening.’ Over long periods of time and large number of transactions, this prediction should mature and get close to accurate.

Given that the aggregator platform would be armed with this data, it is for the policy maker to ensure that such data is not abused to further its own gains. How does policy ensure this? By capping the multiple through a policy decree, no! Rather ensuring a market mechanism that caps the surge pricing multiple would generate significant welfare to all the parties. In order to ensure a market mechanism that makes profiteering out of surge pricing unviable, the Governments must focus on developing robust public transportation infrastructure. As attributed to a variety of leaders on the Internet/ social media, ‘a rich economy is where the rich use public transport’. These investments would provide significant alternatives to attack supply shortages in the market, and make them more efficient. This supply side intervention would do the market a lot of sustainable good, by ensuring that the Shravans of the city need not use the taxi aggregators more frequently, and thereby increasing the price inelasticity.

Policy recommendation

In conclusion, the entire analysis of the demand-supply situation leads me to recommend one simple thing to the policy makers – focus on the supply side. Get more and more public transport (greener the better) on the road; provide better and efficient alternatives to all segments; and in the short run, just ensure that there are enough ‘vehicles available for hire’ on the road.

Comments welcome.

Surge pricing: Implications for India

Last weekend, I was in Chennai and I keep using taxi-hailing apps a lot when I am outside Bangalore. About half the time, I was offered rides with surge pricing, ranging from 1.4x through 2.5x of the base fare. And in some cases, for rides in the middle of a hot afternoon, I was offered an upgrade from a “mini” to “sedan”. Riding through the upgraded sedan, I was flipping through the news article, and found an article on Uber’s surge pricing lawsuit (see http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-31/uber-antitrust-lawsuit-over-pricing-green-lighted-by-judge).

On Monday, 4th April 2016, the Economic Times, Bangalore Edition carried this piece about the Karnataka Government regulation of ride-hailing service (see http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/small-biz/startups/karnataka-nixes-surge-pricing-by-taxi-hailing-apps-like-ola-uber/articleshow/51678792.cms). In a nutshell, this regulation caps surge prices, encourages drivers to operate for multiple services (multi-home), and relaxes norms for drivers to affiliate with a ride-sharing platform.

I was left wondering, what would be the implications for the lawsuit in a duopoly market like India, where OLA and Uber compete. Would the economics be any different? In this post, we will understand surge pricing and its economics, in conditions of a duopoly, and the implications of the lawsuit in India.

What is surge pricing? How does Uber justify it?

The Uber website explains surge pricing thus: (https://help.uber.com/h/6c8065cf-5535-4a8b-9940-d292ffdce119).

“Uber rates increase to ensure reliability when demand cannot be met by the number of drivers on the road.

Our goal is to be as reliable as possible in connecting you with a driver whenever you need one. At times of high demand, the number of drivers we can connect you with becomes limited. As a result, prices increase to encourage more drivers to become available.

We take notifying you of the current pricing seriously. To that end, you’ll see a notification screen in your app whenever there is surge pricing. You’ll have to accept those higher rates before we connect you to a driver.”

The core argument is that surge pricing incentivises more drivers to be available during times of high demand. At the core of this argument is that Uber cannot “mandate” drivers to be available when the demand is likely to be higher, and therefore has to “incentivise” them. Just like tipping the driver to be available. The difference is that the amount of the tip is pre-defined. The effects of surge pricing are well documented in the case study by Chicago Booth School faculty here.

There are two challenges: who pays for the incentive – is the charge on the riders justified? Do drivers like this?

Riders’ perspective on surge pricing

A lot of riders (at least in India) do not like the haggling and negotiating with taxis and autorikshaws for a ride both on price and whether they do want to go to your destination. Most of us using public transport in India are familiar with the famous rant “I have to come back from there empty”. Uber and OLA implicitly promised to eliminate it with its fixed and transparent pricing. Add to that, the ease of hailing a cab to your doorstep/ boarding point, thanks to the mobile app and navigation tools available for both the driver and the rider. In that sense, cab-hailing apps should have their loyalist converts. However, when surge pricing is applied, a typical rider would think twice before confirming the same – she is confronted with the same behaviour the autorikshaw driver on the street would have told her – “this is my price, take it or leave it.” In a sense, it brings out the haggler in the rider, just that now the firm is haggling, and the rider is not even sure the driver benefits out of it (more on the drivers’ perspective later).

The second thing that puts off the rider requesting the ride is the number of cabs available on the map before the surge pricing announcement is made. If surge pricing was indeed designed to get more drivers available, what is happening to all these cabs stationed around my pickup point? Here is where customers begin their multi-homing behaviour (having/ using multiple apps at the same time). She would immediately try the other app – OLA or Uber to see if there is surge pricing there.

It hurts when there is an emergency or a discomfort, like having small children/ elders waiting with you; a flight/ train to take; having to reach for a meeting on time; making another person wait on the other side; or a combination of the above. In effect she is made to negotiate, haggle, bargain for a ride. She does feel she is being taken for a ride, literally.

What does all this result in – a poor experience to begin with, resulting in lower driver ratings. Poor driver, he is being penalised because sufficient number of other drivers were not available. Yes, he may make more money, but at the end of the day, the overall economics may not make sense. Surge pricing acts as a “moment of truth” for the rider, and she resets her expectations. When I am paying 2.1x times the normal fare, I expect the driver to be extra courteous, cab to be clean, and even the traffic to be lighter. On the contrary – surge pricing happens mostly during peak hours when everyone is either getting to work or back home, and on the road; and traffic is likely to be very heavy. All this plays on the riders’ minds and they are lowering the drivers’ ratings.

Drivers’ perspective on surge pricing

A typical driver joined the Uber system (Uber or UberX) with the intention of leveraging her/ his car for monetary gains. Compared to a taxi license, which is highly regulated (check out how to get a cabbie license in London, or what the dominant political parties think of cabbies in Mumbai), or a company employment that can be highly restrictive in terms of business, driving your car for Uber or OLA provides a combination of independence and profitability. At the core of the decision is the value of economic choice the driver has – he can choose when to “switch on”, or become available for a ride, and therefore, how many number of rides and how many hours of the day he wants to ride. This economic choice is also guided by the incentives provided by the cab-hailing firms to the drivers on the number of rides they take per day. Given the very low market penetration in India, most drivers multi-home, i.e., they sign up for both Uber and OLA. And make consolidated economic choices, viz., distributing the amount of time/ number of rides for the two firms so that they can maximise the incentives.

Surge pricing for drivers mimics the pre-disruption world. When there is high demand, I charge more. In fact, OLA (in India) has mandated that drivers should be available through the peak period to be able to earn incentives. While the peak period varies across cities, it is still such a large window that drivers could balance the demand across both the firms (Uber and OLA). And drivers make the choice of going online to that system where surge pricing is high. Even though they do not know in real time when and how much surge pricing is applicable, once the rider has accepted the ride, they would know. And with experience (and a little experimentation), it is easy to estimate. So, if it is likely that OLA would have higher surge pricing rates than Uber, the drivers would shift to OLA, thereby decreasing the supply available for Uber, triggering surge pricing in Uber. While the increased number of cabs for OLA should eventually bring down the surge pricing, it is not quick enough, as multi-homing riders (with both their apps running) are choosing the ride with the lower surge price.

Elasticity of demand and supply in a duopoly

This brings us to the question of how truly “elastic” is the supply, give the duopoly in India? Unlike in markets where there is just Uber and competition is poor, India suffers from a duopoly where the drivers’ multi-homing artificially increases/ decreases supply in one system. And when the riders are also multi-homing, the system stabilises and behaves like a monopoly, albeit with some time lags (than a monopoly market).

Would a flat peak-time pricing work? It may, but given the technology and its ability to discover real-time demand and supply, surge pricing is any day superior algorithm to peak-time pricing. Fixed peak-times are things of the past, when people went to work at the same time in the morning and returned back home around the same time in the evening. Flexible working hours, working from home, working for overseas customers in different time-zones … peak-times are stretched throughout the day in urban metropolises like Bangalore and Mumbai.

The law-suit [Meyer v. Kalanick, 1:15-cv-09796, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan)]

The law suit against Uber’s CEO, Mr. Kalanick (note, the suit is against the CEO, and not the firm Uber) claims three things:

  1. Uber is not just a technology company, selling apps, but a transportation company
  2. Drivers are employees and not independent contractors
  3. Price fixing by the CEO of Uber, while using fixed prices despite using non-competing independent contractors as drivers

The arguments against these charges by Uber and its CEO are that Uber is just an aggregator, and the drivers as independent service providers have wilfully entered into an economic arrangement to agree to the policies set by Uber to find good quality and quantity of riders. Implying that without a platform like Uber, drivers would find it difficult to discover good quantity and quality of riders. And vice versa for riders. The transportation contract is between the rider and the driver. If this were to be entirely true, then the rider should have absolute choice of drivers/ cabs, as well as drivers to have absolute choice of which rider to take. Given that Uber make the match, and provide you “one” driver-rider combination, this true contract is questionable.

Drivers as independent contractors may be defensible with the argument that drivers have the choice when to login to the service. They may choose to switch off when they want, after fulfilling some minimum conditions. If they were employees, the firm would mandate more than a set of minimum conditions and behaviours; and would not provide the driver with the absolute economic choice provided in the current arrangement. It is to Uber’s economic policies that they have signed up to, and that explains why drivers with different economic expectations can co-exist in a single platform.

The price fixing charge is defensible with the argument that since drivers are independent contractors, it is important to “incentivise” them rather than “mandate” them to be available in peak demand times. To argue that these drivers do not compete is flawed, as the extent of surge pricing is determined by the supply of drivers in relation to the demand. In order to be available on Uber, each driver must maintain certain service quality, and do a certain number of rides. There is definitely competition amongst the drivers – they would want to be available where demand is likely to be higher than supply; and be there before other drivers. For accusing Uber of price fixing under anti-trust laws, Meyer should establish that in spite of varying demand and supply, Uber maintains the same price, coordinating with independent contractors (drivers) who do not compete.

Here is where surge pricing comes to Uber’s rescue – it is their most effective defence against price fixing charge.

Implications in India

The Indian law is uncertain, to say the least, on the regulation of platforms. The (in)famous case of a Uber male driver raping a female rider in Delhi is a case in point. Uber was first banned by the Delhi Government, the ban revoked by the High Court, only for the Delhi Government to subsequently not approve its application. Uber and OLA then went back to court and the courts agreed to revoke the ban when they promised to replace diesel cars with CNG vehicles. What this means in terms of legality is that Uber and OLA are in fact, undertaking on behalf its independent contractors.

The courts and everyone else in India would be waiting for the judgment of the class action suit in the USA on how this market pans out. Given the size of the Indian market, classifying drivers as employees, and Uber and OLA as transportation companies would kill the platform business model. While I do not believe that it would not go that extreme, interesting times lie ahead on how the courts and regulators interpret the developments.