Firms in many industries engage in price obfuscation -- tactics that intentionally make prices more difficult for consumers to discern. While existing research has focused on the short-term financial gains that motivate firms to obfuscate, reputational concerns may at least partially counteract these incentives if consumers punish deceptive firms via loss of loyalty in future transactions and/or publicly observable negative feedback. This paper addresses the latter possibility, exploring the impact of shrouded surcharges on firm reputation in the U.S. hotel industry. Using data collected from two major online travel sites, I exploit differences in surcharge disclosure across booking channels to identify the causal effect of hidden “resort fees” on traveler ratings. I find that hidden fees decrease ratings by roughly 0.15 points (on a rating scale ranging from 1 to 5). The magnitude of this effect varies based on firm characteristics, and this variation is consistent with observed heterogeneity in resort fee adoption patterns: when the expected punishment is more severe, firms are substantially less likely to adopt shrouded surcharges. Results shed light on the extent to which reputational mechanisms may act as a check against price obfuscation and other similar practices intended to exploit boundedly rational consumers.
Chiles, Bennett. "Shrouded Prices and Firm Reputation: Evidence from the U.S. Hotel Industry." Management Science (forthcoming).
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