Why Do Intermediaries Divert Search?
Executive Summary — (Previously titled "Designing a Two-Sided Platform: When to Increase Search Costs?") Conventional wisdom holds that at the most fundamental level, market intermediaries exist in order to reduce search and transaction costs among the parties they serve and that they are more valuable the larger the cost savings they generate. This would seem to be true of both traditional, brick-and-mortar intermediaries (retailers, shopping malls, brokers, magazines, market exchanges) and "new economy" ones (Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Yahoo), all of which connect buyers and sellers of goods or services. However, many intermediaries, while providing the relevant information, seem at some stage of the process to do the opposite of reducing search costs—and by purposeful design rather than by accident. Retail stores, for instance, stack the products they carry so that the most sought-after items are hard to find and thereby induce consumers to walk along aisles carrying other products. This paper challenges the conventional wisdom that intermediaries create value by reducing search and transaction costs. It proposes a model that sheds light on the economic motivations that in some contexts may lead intermediaries to make it harder for the parties they serve—consumers and third-party sellers—to find each other. Key concepts include:
- This paper helps make sense of strategies employed by some intermediaries, which seem to purposefully make it hard for their consumers to find what they want: shopping malls, retail stores, popular magazines, and even Internet portals.
- When an intermediary derives higher revenues from consumers shopping at lesser-known stores relative to revenues from consumers shopping at more popular stores, it is more likely to degrade the quality of the search service offered to consumers.
- The intermediary may have an incentive to degrade the quality of search even further when its design decision influences the prices charged by stores.
We propose a model for analyzing an intermediary's incentives to increase the search costs incurred by consumers looking for sellers (stores). First, we show that the quality of the search service offered to consumers is more likely to be degraded (i.e. the probability that consumers find their favorite store in the first round of search is less than 1) when the intermediary derives higher revenues from consumers shopping at the lesser-known store relative to revenues from consumers shopping at the more popular store. Second, the intermediary may have an incentive to degrade the quality of search even further when its design decision influences the prices charged by stores. By altering the composition of demand faced by stores, the intermediary can force the latter to price lower and thereby increase total consumer traffic.