Prices and Price Dispersion on the Web: Evidence from the Online Book Industry

Karen Clay, Ramayya Krishnan, Eric Wolff

NBER Working Paper No. 8271
Issued in May 2001
NBER Program(s):   IO

Using data collected between August 1999 and January 2000 covering 399 books, including New York Times bestsellers, computer bestsellers, and random books, we examine pricing by thirty-two online bookstores. One common prediction is that the reduction in search costs on the Internet relative to the physical channel would cause both price and price dispersion to fall. Over the sample period, we find no change in either price or price dispersion. Another prediction of the search literature is that the prices and price dispersion of advertised items or items that are purchased repeatedly will be lower than for unadvertised or infrequently purchased items. Prices across categories of books appear to conform to this prediction, with New York Times bestsellers having the lowest prices as a fraction of the publisher's suggested price and random books having the highest prices. Interestingly, price dispersion does not conform with this prediction, apparently for reasons related to stores' decisions to carry particular books. One reason why we may not observe convergence in prices is because stores have succeeded in differentiating themselves even though they are selling a commodity product. We observe differentiation (or attempted differentiation) by a significant number of firms.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w8271


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