Research / Weiss Fund Supported ResearchDec 03, 2016

Melons as Lemons: Asymmetric Information, Consumer Learning and Quality Provision

Jie Bai

There is often a lack of reliable high quality provision in many markets in developing countries. I designed an experiment to understand this phenomenon in a setting that features typical market conditions in a developing country: the retail watermelon market in a major Chinese city. I begin by demonstrating empirically that there is substantial asymmetric information between sellers and buyers on sweetness, the key indicator of quality for watermelons, yet sellers do not sort and price watermelons by quality. I then randomly introduce one of two branding technologies into 40 out of 60 markets—one sticker label that is widely used and often counterfeited and one novel laser-cut label. I track sellers’ quality, pricing and sales over an entire season and collect household panel purchasing data to examine the demand side’s response. I find that laser branding induced sellers to provide higher quality and led to higher sales profits, establishing that reputational incentives are present and can be made to pay. However, after the intervention was withdrawn, all markets reverted back to baseline. To rationalize the experimental findings, I build an empirical model of consumer learning and seller reputation. The structural estimates suggest that consumers are hesitant to upgrade their perception about quality under the existing branding technology, which makes reputation building a low return investment. While the new technology enhances consumer learning, the resulting increase in profits is not sufficient to cover the fixed cost of the technology for small individual sellers. Counterfactual analysis shows that information frictions and fragmented markets lead to significant under-provision of quality. Third-party interventions that subsidize initial reputation building for sellers could improve welfare.