By now, some of you have heard about the U.S. Supreme Court’s antitrust ruling yesterday on resale price maintenance — I know, because you’ve e-mailed me! I haven’t downloaded and read the decision yet, but the court changed the law and, as this article suggests, lifted the ban on distributors fixing minimum prices for their retailers. (No, the case had nothing to do with yarn; it was about handbags.)
This doesn’t mean that all resale price maintenance is legal. What the court did (in a 5-4 decision) was abolish the rule that resale price maintenance is per se illegal, because sometimes fixing minimum prices could actually promote competition (this is not the same as conspiring among competitors to fix a minimum price; this is just about a distributor telling its retailers to sell at a fixed price). Instead, each case of resale price maintenance must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine its anticompetitive effects. In the case at bar, the fixed minimum price gave small businesses the opportunity to compete on customer service against discount chains (whom, I assume, did not sell the exact same high-quality product).
You can imagine that distributors will probably be quite pleased with this. At first blush, I can see that the argument makes sense with goods that are carried by large and small retailers alike and that are, as far as the consumer is concerned, non-substitutable. Consider what happened to small, independent book stores. You don’t hear readers saying “I’d like to read the Discworld series, but I don’t want to spend all that money on the books. Can anyone recommend a cheaper substitute that has some sort of special, unseen school for wizards?”* Someone’s going to buy the book, or they’re not; if multiple retailers want to compete, they have to carry the exact same book, not some substitute book about wizards. Considering the number of small shops that have folded, perhaps customers do not attribute a value to customer service that’s equivalent to the price difference between a local bookshop and the local big box store that can afford to discount the retail price. A fixed minimum price might have helped those shops.
One the other hand, it makes less sense when the product is substitutable with goods of similar quality. To bring this back into our context, knitters look for substitute yarns all the time, so even yarns from different suppliers compete on price and quality. Sure, some yarns are unique, but there’s often something just as good, depending on the knitter’s standards. A yarn shop doesn’t need to compete with exactly the same products; it can choose to carry Cascade 220 or Ella Rae Classic, and make its customers understand that the yarns are perfectly substitutable.** If a yarn is competing against other yarns sold by other retailers, then insisting on a minimum retail price arguably harms competition. If a yarn was only competing against itself, because it was the only pure silk yarn spun with pure gold beads shaped like Elvis that was rated for use in -40°C weather,*** then the competition would be between shops selling the same item, and a minimum price may make sense.****
Interestingly, I’m not certain where patterns fit into this. Lots of people will substitute one pattern for another, because they just want a sock with a certain type of heel, or a raglan with some kind of cable decoration, but they don’t want to pay for a pattern, or they have a low ceiling on the price they’re willing to pay. Some patterns, though, are less substitutable than others.
Off to digest.
* Pretend we don’t have libraries.
** Yes, I know some people might threaten a lawsuit over claims that certain yarns are substitutable with certain other yarns. This is the gateway to the fascinating intersection of trademark and antitrust law; trademarks and other intellectual property rights are a form of permissible legal monopoly, contrary to the basic premise that monopolies are bad; businesses are within their rights to legitimately exercise their IP rights to compete against others. Identifying when wielding IP rights becomes an anticompetitive abuse of those rights is a fun question.
*** Don’t get any ideas.
**** I am only making a crazy hypothesis; I am not saying that producing pure silk yarn spun with pure gold beads shaped like Elvis that was rated for use in -40°C weather will keep you on the right side of any country’s antitrust laws.