Merchant or Two-Sided Platform?

by Andrei Hagiu

Overview — With ever more sophisticated logistics and the rise of information technologies, intermediaries and market platforms have become increasingly ubiquitous and important agents in the digital economy. While market intermediation is not a new phenomenon, the digital economy has revealed that there can be two polar types of intermediaries: "merchants," which acquire goods from sellers and resell them to buyers, and "two-sided platforms," which allow affiliated sellers to sell directly to affiliated buyers. As examples, retailers like and are (mostly) merchants; eBay is a pure two-sided platform; and Apple's iTunes digital music store exhibits both merchant and platform features. This research is a first pass at delineating the economic tradeoffs between the merchant and two-sided platform modes. Key concepts include:

  • Economic tradeoffs are affected by several fundamental economic factors: indirect network effects between buyers and sellers; asymmetric information between sellers and the intermediary; and investment incentives, product complementarities, and substitutability.
  • This analysis holds true for a monopoly intermediary. With competing intermediaries, more subtle strategic issues may arise that are beyond the scope of this research.

Author Abstract

This paper provides a first pass at clarifying the economic tradeoffs between two polar strategies for market intermediation: the "merchant" mode, in which the intermediary buys from sellers and resells to buyers; and the "two-sided platform" mode, under which the intermediary enables affiliated sellers to sell directly to affiliated buyers. The merchant mode yields higher profits than the two-sided platform mode when the chicken-and-egg problem due to indirect network effects for the two-sided platform mode is more severe and when the degree of complementarity/substitutability among sellers' products is higher. Conversely, the platform mode is preferred when seller investment incentives are important or when there is asymmetric information regarding seller product quality. We discuss these tradeoffs in the context of several prominent digital intermediaries.

Paper Information