I want to second Josh’s commendation of Ben Klein’s submission to the recent FTC Hearings on Resale Price Maintenance. Klein’s paper, which bears the same title as this post, is lucidly written (blissfully free of equations, Greek letters, etc.) and makes a point that, at this juncture in antitrust’s history, is absolutely crucial.
In the pre-Leegin era, commentators who were critical of Dr. Miles‘s per se rule (including yours truly) usually emphasized the so-called free-rider rationale for minimum RPM. According to that rationale, manufacturers frequently set minimum resale prices for their products in order to encourage demand-enhancing point-of-sale services upon which retailers could free-ride. Golf club manufacturer Ping, for example, tried to control its dealers’ resale prices because it wanted dealers to expend great effort helping customers find the perfect set of highly customizable clubs. It worried that the ability to compete on resale price would lead some dealers to cut their own customizing services (and thus their costs), direct their customers to high-service dealers for the necessary customization, and then offer a discount to those customers on the clubs selected by the high service (and thus higher cost) dealers, who couldn’t afford to match the discount. If such free-riding were pervasive, Ping dealers would eventually stop providing the sort of customizing services that enhance demand for Ping clubs.
In the pre-Leegin era, it made sense for critics of Dr. Miles to emphasize the free-rider rationale because (1) it’s easy to explain, and (2) it applies often enough that we can say with confidence that RPM — often motivated by a desire to avoid free-riding on output-enhancing services — is not “always or almost always anticompetitive.” That, of course, is all we Dr. Miles critics needed to establish in order to undermine the per se rule against minimum RPM. (Per se illegality is appropriate only for practices that are always or almost always anticompetitive.)
It’s now a new day in antitrust. Dr. Miles is dead, and the key question for courts, commentators, and the regulatory agencies is how particular instances of RPM should be evaluated to determine their legality. Answering that question requires more than a simple showing that RPM can, under a fairly common set of circumstances, lead to higher output. Indeed, if our rule of reason focuses exclusively on the free-rider rationale for RPM, it may well lead to condemnation of procompetitive instances of RPM in circumstances in which the free-rider rationale does not apply. For example, the highly influential Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise proposes a rule of reason that would automatically condemn RPM arrangements on “homogeneous products,” for which there are unlikely to be any point-of-sale services that are susceptible to free-riding. (See par. 1633c of the Second Edition.) The assumption here is that RPM’s only significant procompetitive effect is the elimination of free-riding.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s Leegin decision recognized that RPM may be output enhancing even in the absence of free-riding. The Court explained (page 12):
Resale price maintenance can also increase interbrand competition by encouraging retailer services that would not be provided even absent free riding. It may be difficult and inefficient for a manufacturer to make and enforce a contract with a retailer specifying the different services the retailer must perform. Offering the retailer a guaranteed margin and threatening termination if it does not live up to expectations may be the most efficient way to expand the manufacturer’s market share by inducing the retailer’s performance and allowing it to use its own initiative and experience in providing valuable services.
The idea here — developed fully in Klein & Murphy (1988) — is that RPM, which guarantees retailers a healthy margin on sales of the product at issue, can be used to generate retailer services that are hard to secure contractually. Exhaustively specifying ex ante all the services a retailer should provide would be quite difficult for a manufacturer. In addition, monitoring and enforcing a dealer’s performance obligations along multiple service dimensions would require substantial effort. RPM coupled with a liberal right of termination can provide an alternative means of securing the retailer services(attractive product placement, etc.) that enhance demand for the manufacturer’s products. If the manufacturer generally observes its retailers’ performance, retains an unfettered right to terminate underperformers, and provides an attractive retail margin as an incentive to avoid termination, then the manufacturer can motivate its retailers to provide demand-enhancing point of sale services without specifying them exhauastively.
While the Leegin majority nicely explained how RPM can be used to enhance demand-enhancing retailer services even when those services are not subject to free-riding, it failed to address one crucial question: Why would a manufacturer need to use RPM to encourage these services, since retailers themselves would also benefit from increasing the sales of their manufacturers’ products?
Justice Breyer pounced on this omission in his Leegin dissent. Referring to the majority’s contention that RPM “may be the most efficient way to expand the manufacturer’s market share by inducing the retailer’s performance and allowing it to use its own initiative and experience in providing valuable services,” Justice Breyer stated (pages 14-15):
…I do not understand how, in the absence of free-riding (and assuming competitiveness), an established producer would need resale price maintenance. Why, on these assumptions, would a dealer not “expand” its “market share” as best that dealer sees fit, obtaining appropriate payment from consumers in the process? There may be an answer to this question. But I have not seen it.
Klein’s submission to the FTC’s RPM hearings provides a straightforward answer to Justice Breyer’s question. RPM may be necessary, Klein contends, because a manufacturer and its dealers often have divergent incentives when it comes to services that expand demand for the manufacturer’s products. Frequently, a manufacturer will stand to gain much more from its dealers’ promotional efforts than the dealers themselves. Thus, “RPM plus a liberal right of termination” may be needed to incentivize dealers to provide the services that will maximize sales of the manufacturer’s products. Klein points to three commonly present economic factors that create the sort of incentive divergence that warrants RPM:
(1) Manufacturers often enjoy a larger per-unit profit margin than do their retailers. Because manufacturers’ products tend to be more highly differentiated than the services retailers provide, and because the ability to charge prices in excess of one’s costs is a function of the uniqueness of whatever one is providing, manufacturers will generally earn higher per-unit profits on their products than will the retailers who resell those products. Accordingly, manufacturers stand to gain more from incremental sales of their products than do their retailers, and they may therefore need a way to give their retailers an extra incentive to promote their products.
(2) Many manufacturer-specific retailer promotional efforts lack significant inter-retailer demand effects. While some retailer promotional efforts, such convenient free parking or extended store hours, would provide competitive benefits for both the manufacturers whose products are carried by the retailer and the retailer itself, other retailer promotional efforts, such as prominent placement of the manufacturer’s product within the “impulse buy” section of the retailer’s store, would really benefit only the manufacturer without enhancing demand for the retailer’s services over those of its competitors. Absent some nudge from the manufacturer, retailers won’t be adequately incentivized to perform these sorts of services. RPM can provide the needed nudge.
(3) Manufacturer-specific retailer promotional efforts may cannibalize a multi-brand retailer’s sales of other brands. Many retailer services that would promote a manufacturer’s brand of a product would merely reduce the retailer’s sales of competing brands of the same product and would thus provide little, if any, net benefit to the retailer. Granting favored shelf space to one brand, for example, may require moving a competing brand to less favorable shelf space, thus reducing the sales of that brand. A manufacturer can induce its retailers to provide it with “cannibalizing” promotional services by employing RPM to guarantee the retailer a higher markup on sales of the manufacturer’s brand.
These sources of divergence between manufacturers’ and retailers’ incentives are discussed in more detail in Josh’s 2007 collaboration with Klein, The Economics of Slotting Contracts, 50 J. L. & Econ. 421 (2007). Taken together, the various sources of divergence make it in the interest of many manufacturers to adopt some sort of RPM policy, even when the product at issue is not one that is sold along with services that are susceptible to free-riding. The RPM policies manufacturers adopt to address incentive divergence enhance the manufacturers’ overall output and should thus be assumed to be procompetitive. Accordingly, liability rules such as that proposed in the Areeda-Hovenkamp treatise, which maintains that “[p]roduct homogeneity is an easily observable fact that is inconsistent with known legitimate uses of RPM” (Par. 1633c, at 334 (2d ed.)), are unsound and should be rejected.