By Ezra Klein
I’m with Ben Miller and Frank Bruni: Restaurants should charge for bread. As Bruni argues, there’s no such thing as “free bread.” Rather, there’s such a thing as “slightly more expensive entrees.” And that’s the thing people are getting when they think they’re getting free bread.
That might all be fine if the amount of bread people were receiving corresponded to the amount of people who would actually pay the marginal cost of a baguette and some butter. But that’s almost certainly not the case. Things that are considered “free” are not treated rationally. A nice experimental demonstration of this was relayed in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. A few years ago, Amazon introduced “Free!” Super Saver Shipping. The deal was simple: By $25 worth of merchandise, save $3.99 in shipping. Sales shot up worldwide as consumers bought a bit more merchandise to qualify for free shipping.
Except in France.
When Amazon investigated the anomaly, they found that their French division had not offered actually “free” shipping. They were charging a single franc. The equivalent of twenty cents. Amazon removed the minor charge and sales in France shot up to match the rest of the world. Twenty cents had almost destroyed the program.
Ariely conducted a similar experiment himself. He set up shop in a mall and offered shoppers one of two deals. Either they could have a free $10 certificate (which is to say, a free $10), or they could pay $7 for a $20 certificate (which is to say, a free $13). Literally everyone chose the first. But when Ariely made the $10 certificate cost a single dollar, two-thirds of the folks he stopped preferred to pay for the $20 certificate.
What does this have to do with bread? In short, people consume a lot more of something when they think it’s free. Even attaching a marginal cost to the bread bowl — a quarter, say, or a dollar — would probably lead consumption to plummet. That would make everything else on the menu cheaper and, incidentally, make dining out a bit healthier as people wouldn’t overconsume bread. It’s not just that the bread eaters are being subsidized by the bread refuseniks right now. It’s that everyone is wired to eat more of the bread because they think they’re getting something free.