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What is Price Discrimination?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Price discrimination is the practice of one retailer, wholesaler, or manufacturer charging different prices for the same items to different customers. This is a widespread practice, and does not necessarily imply negative discrimination. Historically, it has been used in a negative way, however, and early forms certainly existed in US states with Jim Crow laws, for example, where a black consumer might very likely pay more for the same quantity and items than a white consumer would. In general, this type of discrimination is very rare today.

As it is now understood, price discrimination is separated into degrees. First, second, and third degree discrimination exist and apply to different pricing methods used by companies. Much depends on the understanding of the market in segments, and also the consumer’s ability to pay a higher or lower price, called elasticity of demand. Someone who might pay more for an item is thought to have a low elasticity of demand. Another person who will not pay as much has a high elasticity.

First-degree occurs when identical goods are sold at different prices to each individual consumer. Obviously, the seller is not always going to be able to identify who is willing to pay more for certain items, but when he or she can, his profit increases. Consumers can see this type of discrimination in the sale of both new and used cars. People will pay different prices for cars with identical features, and the salesperson must attempt to gauge the maximum price at which the car can be sold. This often includes a bargaining aspect, where the consumer attempts to negotiate a lower price.

Second-degree discrimination refers to companies charging lower prices for higher quantities. In companies where a client orders in bulk and is able to purchase a high number of the same items at once, the client may get a discounted rate. This rate would not apply to a client who only orders a few items at a time. This degree is common in retail stores, where a reduced price may be offered if a shopper buys two T-shirts instead of just one. This form helps to get rid of merchandise and generate more revenue for a company.

Third degree price discrimination is based on understanding the market, and occurs with great frequency. This type takes many different forms, but in all cases, attempts to derive the most sales from each segmented “group” of consumers. For example, senior citizens are considered a group and are often offered discounts at movie theaters, for transportation, in restaurants, and even in retail stores where seniors may have a “senior day” each week that allows them to take a discount on merchandise. “Students” are another segmented group that may be offered lower prices. Both seniors and students have a higher elasticity of demand and can generally afford to pay less than the average worker.

Market segmentation may also evaluate the socio-economic aspects of an area when considering elasticity of demand. It’s not uncommon to see retail grocery stores offer differing prices in an area where the retailer knows he can get more money for a product. Where only one chain store exists in a certain location, retail grocery stores might offer higher prices because people have no alternative place to shop.

Another form of third degree discrimination is temporary discounts for airfares that are meant to increase business. These discounts could be seasonal and designed to promote the company. Those in urban areas may also pay more for flights or hotel rooms than those in rural areas.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon138496 — On Jan 01, 2011

Please note that the use of "elasticity of demand" concept is somewhat inaccurate.

Elasticity of demand refers to how much the quantity demanded will change due to price increases or decreases, e.g. increase price by 5 percent and the quantity demanded might decrease by 10 percent.

A more accurate statement would be: "If price-elasticity of demand is high, then small changes in price produce big changes (a big 'bounce') in quantity demanded. When price elasticity of demand is low, then sellers can increase the price by as much as they want, but the quantity bought (demanded) will remain much the same (i.e. no 'bounce' in the quantity demanded!). Extreme examples of this only happen with necessary goods such as petrol/diesel.

By Comparables — On Aug 04, 2010

I would like to point out that most forms of modern price discrimination does not violate discrimination law. Every customer has the option to take advantage of the different price tiers. Retailers do not separate customers into groups that are protected against discrimination, except in the case of senior citizens, and in these cases, the group in question is given a discount. In this situation, price discrimination is socially acceptable. Most agree that someone who has lived beyond a certain point deserves a break.

By ValleyFiah — On Aug 04, 2010

Loyalty cards are a common form of price discrimination in the retail sector. It is a trade off; give a little bit of marketing information and you receive a discount. The retailers are also hoping this discount turns into customer loyalty, although excessive marketing communications can turn many consumers off (no one likes junk mail and email).

By anon4368 — On Oct 15, 2007

We went into a grocery store, items were priced on the shelves with, MVP card customers get 20% off. We got to register and were told without the MVP card we would not be entitled to 20% (price advertised and marked on sign). I asked the cashier does she only treat card customers as MVP? and her reply was a simple yes.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia...
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