Via Felix Salmon there is this story about how Economists are upset that restaurant reservations might not be commanding Maximum Market Value!
My feeling is that the restaurant is the smart one, while the economists are being naive.
For one thing, real people don’t think in terms of opportunity cost – especially not when they’re the lucky winners of a restaurant-reservations lottery. Dan Ariely did research on this at Duke University: he found that once Duke students won the lottery giving them the opportunity to buy sought-after tickets to the university’s basketball game, they valued those tickets at ten times more than the students who lost the lottery.
What’s really going on here, I think, is that the vast majority of people who get tickets hold on to them, go to the restaurant, and eat a wonderful meal for which they paid a reasonable sum. And then there’s a tiny number of people who get tickets, and either discover they can’t use them for some reason, or decide that they’re going to try to flip them for profit.
The most important thing in being a restaurateur of a high-end establishment is exceeding expectations; if you auction off tickets, then the price of tickets will naturally gravitate to and possibly past the point at which you can’t do that any longer. That’s why Next is right to worry about “our sense of value for the meal” – because the chances are that their sense is going to be your sense too. If they think a meal isn’t worth more than say $200, and they start selling tickets to that meal at $400 apiece, then they’re setting their customers up for disappointment; I can’t imagine Achatz would ever want that.
Do the handful of people who currently buy tickets for $500 or $3,000 walk away disappointed? Maybe not: there’s a good chance those people aren’t particularly price-sensitive. But when you move away from those people and use the market to set prices for all your customers, big dangers lurk. As Alan Vanneman says, markets are largely foreign to the human imagination. And since restaurant-goers are human, we don’t want to upset them with market mechanisms if doing so is unnecessary.