Uber is changing the way it calculatess fares. Ritchie B Tongo/EPA
Uber is changing the way it calculates fares, moving to a system that charges what customers are “willing to pay”, based on factors like whether you are travelling to a wealthy suburb. But while this change has been met with mild outrage, it is actually a very common practice called “price discrimination”.
Price discrimination is a firm’s attempt to capture the difference between the value a consumer puts on a product and how much they actually pay. Firms do this by charging different prices to different consumers and exploiting differences in willingness to pay.
While this sounds like it comes at the expense of consumers, economic theory shows that society as a whole can benefit if certain conditions are met. For example, if Uber’s new pricing means it can enter new markets or reduce customer waiting times, price discrimination could increase society’s overall welfare.
Price discrimination takes many forms, such as Coca-Cola’s infamous vending machines that increase soft drink prices as the outside temperature increases, or charging more for pink razors.
Cheap movie tickets on Tuesdays are another example of price discrimination, as are the different priced tickets at the theatre and concerts. Pharmaceutical companies charge different prices in different countries, and car dealers negotiate and give out discounts.
The airline industry is often regarded as the champion of price discrimination. It price discriminates on almost every aspect of a fare - from the time a booking is made to the type of seat booked, and, of course, the actual route flown.
The only surprise is that Uber hasn’t implemented such a system before now. Its success has, in large part, been driven by a business model that so cleverly mimics a free-functioning market, notably with its “surge pricing”.