In 2005, Maine lobster was selling for almost six dollars a pound wholesale. By 2009, it cost just half that, and, in the past couple of summers, huge lobster harvests, believed by some to be a result of global warming, have glutted the market, sending prices tumbling further. This month, lobster off the boat is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound. So why hasn’t the price of lobster come down when you’re buying it at your favorite restaurant?
James Surowiecki explains in The New Yorker that lobster isn’t like a commodity, but rather is more like a luxury good. If it were priced like chicken, people would presumably enjoy it less:
Keeping prices high obviously lets restaurants earn more on each dish. But it may also mean that they get less business. So why aren’t we seeing markdowns? Some of the reasons are straightforward, like the inherent uncertainty of prices from year to year: if a bad harvest next summer sent prices soaring, restaurants might find it hard to sell expensive lobster to customers who’d got used to cheap lobster. But the deeper reason is that, economically speaking, lobster is less like a commodity than like a luxury good, which means that its price involves a host of odd psychological factors.
Lobster hasn’t always been a high-end product. In Colonial New England, it was a low-class food, in part because it was so abundant: servants, as a condition of their employment, insisted on not being fed lobster more than three times a week. In the nineteenth century, it became generally popular, but then, as overharvesting depleted supplies, it got to be associated with the wealthy (who could afford it). In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster’s image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.
Another additional point worth highlighting:
Restaurants also worry about the message that discounting sends. Studies dating back to the nineteen-forties show that when people can’t objectively evaluate a product before they buy it (as is the case with a meal) they often assume a correlation between price and quality. Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: people might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors. A 1996 study found that restaurants wouldn’t place more orders with wholesalers even if lobster prices fell twenty-five per cent.
Finally, having lobster on the menu is a boon for restaurants because its artificially high price makes other dishes on the menu comparatively more affordable. Cited in Surowiecki’s piece is a fascinating paper by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky concerning these context-dependent preferences:
The standard theory of choice-based on value maximization-associates with each option a real value such that, given an offered set, the decision maker chooses the option with the highest value. Despite its simplicity and intuitive appeal, there is a growing body of data that is inconsistent with this theory. In particular, the relative attractiveness of x compared to y often depends on the presence or absence of a third option z, and the “market share” of an option can actually be increased by enlarging the offered set. We review recent empirical findings that are inconsistent with value maximization, and present a context-dependent model that expresses the value of each option as an additive combination of two components: a contingent weighting process that captures the effect of the background context, and a binary comparison process that describes the effect of the local context. The model accounts for observed violations of the standard theory and provides a framework for analyzing context-dependent preferences.