Suppliers of Priors: A Theory of Retailing Inspired by the Market for Chinese Antiquities
Ye, Michelle (Mingxiao)
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Adverse selection may thwart trade between an informed seller, who knows the probability p that an item of antiquity is genuine, and an uninformed buyer, who does not know p. The buyer might not be wholly uninformed, however. Suppose he can perform a simple inspection, a test of his own: the probability that an item passes the test is g if the item is genuine, but only f < g if it is fake. Given that the buyer is no expert, his test may have little power: f may be close to g. Unfortunately, without much power, the buyer's test will not resolve the difficulty of adverse selection; gains from trade may remain unexploited. But now consider a "store", where the seller groups a number of items, perhaps all with the same quality, the same probability p of being genuine. (We show that in equilibrium the seller will choose to group items in this manner.) Now the buyer can conduct his test across a large sample, perhaps all, of a group of items in the seller's store. He can thereby assess the overall quality of these items; he can invert the aggregate of his test results to uncover the underlying p; he can form a "prior". There is thus no longer asymmetric information between seller and buyer: gains from trade can be exploited. This is our theory of retailing: by grouping items together - setting up a store - a seller is able to supply buyers with priors, as well as the items themselves. We show that the weaker the power of the buyer�s test (the closer f is to g), the greater the seller�s profit. So the seller has no incentive to assist the buyer � e.g., by performing her own tests on the items, or by cleaning them to reveal more about their true age. The paper ends with an analysis of which sellers should specialise in which qualities. We show that quality will be low in busy locations and high in expensive locations.