Friday, July 13, 2018

The Economics of Vacations

Kellogg Insight has published an interesting feature about key research findings from its faculty with regard to the economics and psychology of summer vacations. One of my favorite segments focuses on Tom Hubbard's research on demand shocks. Full disclosure: Tom , his sister, and I went to high school together. He's a terrific strategy researcher. Here's an excerpt, explaining what he learned about demand shocks by studying how the interstate highway system's development affected the gas station industry:

Perhaps you’ll decide to drive to your destination. You probably didn’t know that the gas stations you will pass reveal an interesting economic lesson about demand shocks.  Demand shocks represent a sudden rise or drop in consumers' desire to purchase a good or service. Empirical evidence of how companies and industries respond to demand shocks is hard to come by in large part because shocks, such as a particularly effective advertising campaign, happen everywhere at once.

Strategy professor Thomas Hubbard found inspiration for a way to study demand shocks in memories of family vacations.  "When I was a kid riding in the car to Florida, I-95 wasn't completed yet, and we had to take side roads," he says. What, he wondered, happened to the gas stations in towns after the interstate arrived? "I realized that these were demand shocks."

Studying demand shocks to gas stations during the construction of the interstate highway system was useful because "they're observable many times over many years in many regions," Hubbard says.  He combined government data on gas stations with data on when every mile of the interstate opened. He also poured over old maps to figure out what the best route was between two cities in the 1950s, before the interstate arrived, then measured how far that route was from the new interstate.

Hubbard found that when interstates were built close to existing roads, gas stations responded to the increased demand by expanding in size and hiring more employees, but few additional stations were built. When a new interstate opened several miles or more from the previous highway, entirely new gas stations opened up to service the demand, but the size of existing stations stayed the same.  The results suggest that entry opportunities in expanding markets are not as simple to exploit as they might seem.

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