Last month USA Today said gas stations were bringing back the cash discount. Indeed they were. The Nudge blog shot this picture at a Shell station in northern Virginia today.
The regular price was $3.99 a gallon. USA Today makes no mention of why gas stations are advertising a cash discount instead of a credit card surcharge – an old retailing trick – but good behavioral economists know the answer. Humans view discounts differently from surcharges. The first is an opportunity cost; the second a cost outlay. In Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice, Thaler wrote:
Until recently, credit card companies banned their affiliated stores from charging higher prices to credit card users. A bill to outlaw such agreements was presented to Congress. When it appeared likely that some kind of bill would pass, the credit card lobby turned its attention to form rather than substance. Specifically, it preferred that any difference between cash and credit card customers take the form of a cash discount rather than a credit card surcharge. This preference makes sense if consumers would view the cash discount as an opportunity cost of using the credit card but the surcharge as an out-of-pocket cost.
In Choices, Values, and Frames, Kahneman and Tversky argued that the distinction is one of framing. The discount is seen as a gain while the surcharge is seen as a loss. Since humans are loss averse, we are more likely to give up the discount (the gain) than accept the surcharge (the loss).
The fact that the cash discount is applied to gas provides an interesting wrinkle to the original credit card discussion which ignored the good itself. The sharp increase in the price of is especially painful to loss averse humans whose purchasing power at the pump has slipped considerably. Filling up anywhere, with cash or credit, feels like a raw deal. On a good like this, does the gap between those who forgo the discount and those who pass shrink? In other words, if a pair of a jeans and a gallon of gas both have the same cash discount on a percentage basis, would the number of people taking each be similar?