The sunk cost effect in customer loyalty schemes.
Gary was bored at work sat at his desk. He was wasting time before a meeting by browsing some of the popular shopping websites looking for a new book to read for his commute to work. Like many of us, Gary has several membership subscriptions for websites that he shops on a lot. The subscriptions that he buys for with a small annual cost guarantees Gary quick delivery, priority ordering and discounts on a large range of products. Since he was bored at work Gary thought that he’d take advantage of his subscription and order another book – afterall he pays for the service so why not make the most of it?
Almost all large companies have subscription membership schemes that offer their customers exclusive benefits. Mobile phone (cell phone), internet, utility (e.g., gas and electricity), insurance, and travel providers all offer their main services alongside additional schemes with small membership charges for exclusive offers. These schemes are everywhere. Subscription-based membership schemes are very profitable for most companies, and rely on customers opting for easy, lazy decision-making over well thought through decision-making. The historical cost of purchasing the subscription for a small fee is an important aspect of this easy decision-making.
Traditional economic theories explain that when making decisions historical costs should be irrelevant, they should not factor into present decisions (Kramer, 2017). One of the most prominent cognitive biases were historical costs are an important influencer of decision-making is known at the sunk cost fallacy. Kelly (2004) summarized the sunk cost fallacy into two claims: i) individuals give weight to sunk costs in their decision-making (i.e., subscription costs), and ii) it is irrational for them to do so.
Two popular examples of subscription-based membership schemes that benefit from the sunk cost fallacy are the Bahn Card 50 and Amazon Prime. The Bahn Card 50 is the original customer loyalty scheme for Deutsche Bahn, the main German railway operator. The Bahn Card 50 was introduced in 1992, as of 2014 it had 5 million subscribers. The fee for the card is EUR 255 per year which gives the owner of the card a 50% discount on train fares. Like all of the other subscription-based membership schemes the owner of the Bahn Card 50 regards the subscription cost as a sunk cost (historical cost), in doing so they try to make the most of the scheme (Tacke & Firmer, 1992).
Amazon’s subscription-based membership scheme is called Amazon Prime. Prime was introduced 2004. For a fee of $99 (as of November 2014) subscribers get faster delivery and priority to access to products on Amazon’s shopping website. Prime has become an important part of Amazon’s business model. After the introduction of Prime Amazon recorded a 150% increase in purchases by Prime members in the year immediately after joining the scheme. Prime is responsible for 20% of Amazon’ overall sales in the United States. For a company that makes billion in profits every year exploiting the sunk cost fallacy has proven to be very profitable.
The sunk cost fallacy is just one of many cognitive biases that influence decision-making. As we have seen above for people like Gary, and of course most of us, the sunk cost bias can affect the way in which we make decisions through subscription-based membership schemes. It is easier to think that since we have already paid a membership fee that gives us a discount we should take advantage of this and use it. If you sit back and think about the situation not exploiting the discount actually saves us more money than the discount would because we are not spending anything more. Big companies such as Amazon have learnt to use these cognitive biases, thereby making huge profits from our quick, easy and effortless decision-making.