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Be alert and informed and you may pay less

<em>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</em>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Have you heard about the trick they use in fruit shops? If they want to make money from a large load of lettuce they divide it into two. They put half in a ''bargain bin'' and charge something like $3 a kilo. They put the other half at the quality end of the store and charge $6. The well-heeled and uncertain pay $6. Those with less money and keener for value pay $3.

It earns the shop much more than if it had just charged $6 (if mightn't have been able to shift all the lettuce) and much more than if it had just charged $3 (rich folks would have kept the extra $3 in their pockets). It also makes more than if the shop had just charged a single price somewhere in between, such as $4.50. Well-off customers would have still hung on the extra dollars and some needy customers would have still been priced out. The technique is called price discrimination. It may be retail's most clever invention, and it's everywhere.

Arnott's once made a near-identical but cheaper brand of biscuits called Sunshine. It placed the packs at the bottom of racks where the well-heeled wouldn't look but the bargain hunters would.

Some restaurants in Manly quietly ask whether patrons are locals before offering cheaper prices. They don't want to scare off locals looking after their dollars but they do want to get the most out of visitors primed to spend.

The trick in price discrimination is to hide what you are doing. And to let someone else do the work of sorting your customers.

Sometimes they'll do it themselves. Computer manufacturers offer ''cash-backs'' with expensive machines. Money-conscious buyers send in the certificates (it's one of the reasons they buy the machines). Well-off buyers don't bother.

Banks offer discount or honeymoon rates to customers who switch but not to those who stay. They figure those who don't move don't much mind paying more, unless they threaten to leave in which case they are quickly looked after. Phone companies are masters at this.

General practitioners are in a very good position to assess for themselves the paying potential of their patients. In a just-published study of 267,000 medical records, Meliyanni Johar, of the University of Technology, finds low-income patients are typically bulk billed while high-income patients are charged 15 per cent more.

New technology is being applied to the task. This newspaper has reported that Australian web-based retailers charge higher prices to customers from wealthier suburbs. Amazon has experimented with charging its regular customers more. The online customers don't know it's happening: they are only presented with one price (which is sometimes a higher price if they are accessing the web from an Apple machine).

One of the easiest ways to divide up your customers is to let the government or an educational institution do it for you. Cinemas don't charge less for students out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it to fill cinemas without cutting everyone's price. If they are at risk of filling their cinemas with full-paying customers they often suspend their discounts. McDonald's offers a seniors' discount. It does it not because it is partial to seniors but to free-ride on the work the government has already done issuing cards to price-sensitive customers.

The easiest way of all to price discriminate is to brand an entire country. DVDs are region-coded in part to make it hard for Australians to take advantage of the cheaper prices in the United States and Indonesia. Nescafe attempted to cut off supplies to Aldi when it had the temerity to import lower-priced Indonesian jars labelled ''For sale in Indonesia only.'' For many years Australian music companies succeeded in making it illegal to import legally produced cheaper versions of their own songs. These days, although it is legal to import music at overseas prices, iTunes won't let you. If you're from Australia it'll charge $20.99 for an album. If you're from the US it'll charge $12.99. If you make the mistake of getting an Amazon Kindle delivered to an Australian address each eBook you buy from then on will cost more than if you had had it delivered to the US.

The consumer group Choice says one of the Microsoft software development packages is so expensive here it costs $8500 less to buy it in the US. It is worthwhile paying someone to fly to the US, buy it and fly back.

(Except you would have to pay Australian prices for the flight, often double the price of tickets bought overseas.)

Why would international commerce discriminate against an entire nation? ''Willingness to pay'' is one of the answers the Treasury comes up with in its submission to Parliament's IT pricing inquiry, due to report soon. Affluent and not too concerned about value, we're globally classified as soft touches.

At home, there's always the risk we'll see through the ruse of someone selling the same product for two prices. So retailers will often roughen the product up, perhaps punching and bruising half the lettuces so they are genuinely worse than the other half. In the US white goods retailers are said to take hammers to some of their fridges so they can sell them as ''shop soiled''.

These practices offend our sensibilities. But, appallingly, they are what our own government's new $37 billion national broadband network is planning in the prices it charges retailers. It wants to hobble the speed for ordinary users and have no block for users who pay a higher price.

The constraint is artificial. There is nothing to stop it giving all Australians the truly phenomenal speeds of which it is capable. If it wants to charge for usage it can charge for data.

Former Telstra economist John de Ridder has told the Competition Commission its thinking is mired in the past. It is imposing scarcity where none exists, ''building a motorway and then only using one lane''.

Unless we are given what we have already paid to build, most of us might never know what it's truly capable of.

Peter Martin is economics correspondent. Ross Gittins is on leave.

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  • Good article until the end- whilst there is no difference to the end user connection for the NBN, the fact remains that if everybody had the highest speed connection and the most bandwidth allowed, the network backend wouldn't be able to handle it.

    Whilst the cables to the houses can carry tremendous amounts of data (more than most people will need), the cables to the US and elsewhere (where alot of what we view on the internet ultimately resides) are not getting the same upgrades.

    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 1:06AM
    • Telstra is a monster. It started its life as a bureaucracy, and then when it privatized it forgot it was an essential service, and became a plug hole for irrational money taking. The problem is, there is no philosophy behind its dealings. We're not human beings, we're sitting ducks.

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 7:01AM
    • Absolutely true about NBN. There is ZERO reason,other than gouging that everyone isn't given the highest seepd possible. Telstra are to blame for this as they started it as a way to gouge more money from its cable and ADSL customers, and every ISP since has followed suit (especially Optus).

      The argument that the backend wouldn't handle it, is totally fallacious, as (for example) a doubling of speed, would HALVE the time the link is in use.

      There is ZERO cost in providing the maximum speed, it is totally unfathomable why the NBN is being allowed to get away with it by the government (who continuously spruks the benefits, but ignores the politics/extra costs). Maybe the NBN has totally hoodwinked our politicians, that wouldn't be hard, eh? :)

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 7:33AM
    • I humbly suggest you start moving into 2013.

      Obama has had plans to move the U.S. onto high speed broadband for 2 years.

      Other countries have seen the future via South Korea and are buying it (well everything South Korea can make) as fast as they can.

      I would have paid for the NBN yesterday if I could have it today.

      J. Fraser
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 8:32AM
    • J. Fraser - you hit the nail on the head, but perhaps accidentally. The NBN is a dreadful waste of money because despite the millions (and actually more like billions) there is almost no-one connected to it and won't be for some time. Exactly how much time no-one seems game to answer. Lots of people want fibre - great! Let them get it, via a competitive process, there are lots of companies who would be able to help them....but they are not allowed to are they? Lots of people could really care - great! let them have what they want via competition...but they won't be able to do that either. But what do we actually have? A massive re-incarnation of PMG which is proving to be just as hopeless as the original.

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:11AM
    • J Fraser with super high speed broadband - God save us all, he'll be the first post on every political blog in the nation.....

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:19AM
    • @mw. Hate to break it to you, dopey, but if every customer with even the lowest speed (or say 10mbps) used their connection at the same time, it'd flood the back haul fibre. People on average don't download much more simply because their connection is faster. After all, having a faster connection doesn't make any more content available.

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:19AM
    • J Fraser

      You continue on about the NBN. . Then tell, how do you expect to benefit from the NBN and what current activities do you see improving for yourself?

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:41AM
    • sarajane:
      "when it privatized it forgot it was an essential service"

      No,, when YOU sold it, YOU pocketed the money but YOU seem to have forgotten that it is the job of privately owne companies to make money for their owners..

      When I say YOU I mean all those people who voted in a government that cleakly articulated it's intention to sell YOU company to private interests.

      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:41AM
    • I live in country Victoria, my town is not even on the NBN schedule out past 2015, which means it could be expected out in 2018 or 2019, I'll have moved by then, but this white elephant which is meant to be a panacea for telecommuting and assist small businesses in getting on the net and making money has not really hit the right areas, Brunswick was one of the first locations, a suburb so close to the city that already was served by tens of service providers offering unlimited high speed ADSL2+ for less than $50 a month. In the country we're often offered Telstra at over $100 a month or nothing... and telling me the NBN will fix that means nothing when I have to wait half a decade to get it.
      No doubt my fault for choosing to live in the country?

      Country Victoria
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:45AM

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