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An Economist Sells Bagels: A Case Study in Profit Maximization

  • Steven D. Levitt

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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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
Note: IO
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  1. 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.
  2. Berry, Steven & Levinsohn, James & Pakes, Ariel, 1995. "Automobile Prices in Market Equilibrium," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 63(4), pages 841-90, July.
  3. 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.
  4. Anil K Kashyap, 1994. "Sticky Prices: New Evidence from Retail Catalogs," NBER Working Papers 4855, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Gary S. Becker, 1991. "A Note on Restaurant Pricing and Other Examples of Social Influences on Price," University of Chicago - George G. Stigler Center for Study of Economy and State 67, Chicago - Center for Study of Economy and State.
  6. Bresnahan, Timothy F & Reiss, Peter C, 1991. "Entry and Competition in Concentrated Markets," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(5), pages 977-1009, October.
  7. 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.
  8. Pakes, Ariel S, 1986. "Patents as Options: Some Estimates of the Value of Holding European Patent Stocks," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 54(4), pages 755-84, July.
  9. 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.
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