Over the last couple of weeks I made a thorough reconnoitre of the bedding market. It had been a few decades since I had taken the remotest interest in it, so needed to refresh my memory. I googled. I wikipediaed. I looked in showrooms. I found that beds were a lot taller and more expensive than last time I looked. Over a few days I managed to look at every bed for sale in Dunedin and noticed something very odd about the bedding market. Although several of the major brands were proudly stocked by several different retailers, there was no individual bed that could be seen in more than one store. Which is very strange, don't you think? After all, it you wanted a toaster or a new Ducati Multistrada you could look in several places stocking the same item and choose the one at the best price.
After a few days of looking at beds and reading the brochures, it was pretty clear what was happening, and then a conversation with a nice bloke in one of the shops confirmed my suspicions. Each manufacturer makes an (obviously) limited range of products. But each of the models in their range is tarted up in different coverings and given slightly different names for each individual retailer, who can then make up their own price structure without any great fear of comparison shopping. So, for example, the bed we eventually bought is sold at Smith's City, dressed up in a fetching black as a Sleepyhead Sanctuary Entice for $3691 after a generous $1000 trade in price for the old bed (BWAAHAHAHAHAHA). At Farmers it is sold in a sort of beige cover as a Sleepyhead Sanctuary Rapport on special at $2899. At the bargain basement John's Furniture Warehouse it is decked out in white and sells as the Sleepyhead Sensorzone Elite (latex) for $2499. But unless you asked the salesperson carefully about what was inside it and read the brochures and looked on Sleepyhead's website, and carefully noted the stitching patterns on the fluffy top bit, who would ever tell that they were exactly the same bed? We bought one. I'll let you guess from where, and a jolly fine bed it is too. I didn't know you could go from lights out 'til alarm without waking up.
Now, I have no complaints about the retailers trying to maximise their profits, or about the manufacturer trying to give each of its many outlets all the advantages of a monopoly, but it does raise questions about the "market " economy. It seems that in this case, as in many others, the market is cunningly worked by those who control it, for their own advantage: who would be surprised at that? But when people appeal to the market as a mechanism for regulating economies and for such things as the remuneration packages of CEOs, it is well to remember that in most markets someone has got their thumb fairly firmly on the scales.