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An Economist Sells Bagels: A Case Study in Profit Maximization

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  • Steven D. Levitt

Abstract

Profit maximizing behavior on the part of firms is a fundamental, but rarely tested, assumption of economics. In this paper, I analyze the decisions made by an MIT trained economist running a company that delivers bagels and donuts. The simplicity and transparency of the business (e.g. marginal cost is easily observed) allow for direct tests of profit maximization in the quantities delivered each day and the prices that are charged. Using thirteen years of data representing more than 80,000 deliveries, I find that the company is extremely adept at determining how many bagels and donuts to deliver to a particular customer on a given day. In stark contrast, the company appears to price on the inelastic portion of the demand curve for the entire period, thereby foregoing a substantial share of available profits. I argue that these results generalize well beyond this particular case study: firms are likely to be close to the efficient frontier on dimensions for which there is frequent and informative feedback regarding profits, but absent that feedback, systematic deviations from profit maximization are more likely.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 12152.

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Date of creation: Apr 2006
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12152

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  1. Anil K. Kashyap, 1990. "Sticky prices: new evidence from retail catalogs," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 112, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  2. Becker, Gary S, 1991. "A Note on Restaurant Pricing and Other Examples of Social Influences on Price," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(5), pages 1109-16, October.
  3. Ackerberg, Daniel & Lanier Benkard, C. & Berry, Steven & Pakes, Ariel, 2007. "Econometric Tools for Analyzing Market Outcomes," Handbook of Econometrics, in: J.J. Heckman & E.E. Leamer (ed.), Handbook of Econometrics, edition 1, volume 6, chapter 63 Elsevier.
  4. Cecchetti, Stephen G., 1986. "The frequency of price adjustment : A study of the newsstand prices of magazines," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 31(3), pages 255-274, April.
  5. Feldman, Paul, 1971. "Efficiency, Distribution, and the Role of Government in a Market Economy," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 79(3), pages 508-26, May-June.
  6. Ariel Pakes, 1986. "Patents as Options: Some Estimates of the Value of Holding European Patent Stocks," NBER Working Papers 1340, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Bresnahan, T.F & Reiss, P.C., 1989. "Entry And Competition In Concentrated Markets," Papers 151, Stanford - Studies in Industry Economics.
  8. Berry, Steven & Levinsohn, James & Pakes, Ariel, 1995. "Automobile Prices in Market Equilibrium," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 63(4), pages 841-90, July.
  9. Steven D. Levitt, 2006. "White-Collar Crime Writ Small: A Case Study of Bagels, Donuts, and the Honor System," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(2), pages 290-294, May.
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Cited by:
  1. Huck, Steffen & Rasul, Imran, 2010. "Matched Fundraising: Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment," IZA Discussion Papers 5267, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  2. Huck, Steffen & Rasul, Imran & Shephard, Andrew, 2012. "Comparing charitable fundraising schemes: Evidence from a field experiment and a structural model," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Economics of Change SP II 2012-303, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).
  3. Huck, Steffen & Rasul, Imran & Shephard, Andrew, 2013. "Comparing charitable fundraising schemes: Evidence from a natural field experiment and a structural model," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Economics of Change SP II 2012-303r, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).
  4. Asplund, Björn Marcus, 2007. "A Test of Profit Maximization," CEPR Discussion Papers 6177, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  5. Oriana Bandiera & Valentino Larcinese & Imran Rasul, 2014. "Blissful Ignorance? A Natural Experiment on the Effect of Feedback on Students'Performance," Working Papers 511, IGIER (Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research), Bocconi University.
  6. Levin, Andrew T. & David López-Salido, J. & Nelson, Edward & Yun, Tack, 2008. "Macroeconometric equivalence, microeconomic dissonance, and the design of monetary policy," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 55(Supplemen), pages S48-S62, October.
  7. Francine Lafontaine & Jagadeesh Sivadasan, 2009. "Within-firm Labor Productivity across Countries: A Case Study," NBER Chapters, in: International Differences in the Business Practices and Productivity of Firms, pages 137-172 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Kenneth Kovash & Steven D. Levitt, 2009. "Professionals Do Not Play Minimax: Evidence from Major League Baseball and the National Football League," NBER Working Papers 15347, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Adams, Christopher P., 2007. "Estimating demand from eBay prices," International Journal of Industrial Organization, Elsevier, vol. 25(6), pages 1213-1232, December.

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