The New York Times published a feature in December exposing how hotels and wedding service vendors typically charge more to couples planning wedding festivities than they do to corporations seeking the same facilities and the same services. Is the result of gauging, market forces, negotiation inexperience by the happy couple, or something else? Is it unethical?
The article seems to conclude that the vendors are simply taking advantage of purchasers who have no sensitivity to price, especially so-called “Bridezillas.” They want what they want for their perfect day, and will pay whatever it will cost to get it. Are the venders being unethical to take advantage of what is an emotional rather than a rational mindset? After considering whether more price transparency in the wedding industry would help (the author thinks not), the piece concludes,
“Strong consumer preferences — about the flower type, bridesmaid dress, cake decorations, music style, whatever — mean less price sensitivity (what economists refer to as greater demand inelasticity). If the cocktail napkins must be blue, the happy couple will be willing to pay more for blue. So if there are enough brides out there with strong and specific preferences, who want their weddings to be the special day they always dreamed of, that’s going to push equilibrium prices higher, no matter how transparently they are displayed. In other words, the Bridezillas keep prices high for the rest of us.”
I think how you feel about this situation says a lot about whether you think capitalism is fair or inherently unethical. Should a merchant, faced with a one-time customer who seems determined to pay whatever is asked for a wedding extravaganza, be ethically obligated to ask for a more reasonable price when he knows he can get more? Why? If the couple thinks the price is fair for what they just have to have, why should it be the merchant’s duty to prevent them from over-spending? They can compare prices, and they can walk away from a deal they don’t like. Isn’t this a pure “let the buyer beware” situation?
In some ways, the issue reminds me of the annual debate over the free agent signings of baseball free agents, a process that is underway now. If a team just has to have a certain player, who is regarded as a unique commodity, whether or not it is rational or good business for the team’s management to believe that, the player and his agent have tremendous leverage. If they ask for, say, 20 million dollars a year and the team agrees, can the resulting absurdly inflated contract be blamed on the player? Is the player unethical for “demanding” an excessive salary, if the team says yes to it? If not, how is that different from a venue or a caterer that a bride just has to have taking full advantage of that disadvantageous and foolish negotiation stance? (Bias alert: I think the amount of money couples pay for flamboyant (and often tasteless) weddings, especially couples who will immediately need that money for other, more practical things, is cultural insanity. I also think that this phenomenon is completely controllable by means less damaging than Big Brother saving people from their own stupidity.)
Vendors and hotels, on the other hand, have a different explanation. They will say that, unlike corporations that give them repeat business and that work with them on a professional basis, serving the desires of the soon-to-be wed is more expensive for them—more time consuming, more aggravating, taking up more staff and staff time and being constantly subject to last minute changes.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Question Of The Week is…
Is it unethical for the vendors of wedding venues and services to charge couples more than they do other customers?
Facts: New York Times
Graphic: Wedding Wire