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Did you ever wonder why some units of produce are priced per unit while others are priced per pound? For example, the cucumbers here are priced generally a 99 cents each, or more if they are enormous. Corn is priced at 4 per dollar or 5 per $2.00 or some other per unit price based on the season. On the other hand, sweet potatoes are typically priced by weight, such as $0.59 per pound, the same is true for apples, and my favorite red and orange and yellow peppers.

Why is this the case? It would be fun to ask the grocers, but perhaps it is a better microeconomic exercise to ponder a reason why. I actually don’t know the real reason, but for those interested, the way to systematically approach possible solutions to these puzzles is to simply think about the costs and benefits of pricing different types of produce in each way.

From thinking about it, I can safely rule out my knee-jerk response – that per unit pricing is used for produce that is more uniform in size and quality, while per pound pricing is used for my variable types. But that cannot be – the distribution of quality and size within say apples appears to me to be no different than for sweet potatoes and peppers. Or maybe I am wrong. Is it the case that better produce (for some types of produce) is heavier, even if it is the same size as other units? And that the produce which is priced by the pound is the produce for whom weight is a good proxy for quality? I don’t know enough about fruits and vegetables to make that determination.

Would it have something to do with packaging and shipping? With the quantities that consumers typically buy? With the variation in pricing? With how long produce remains fresh? With tradition in each particular item’s market? For each of these assertions, we’d have to think about the benefits and costs of each – an exercise I will not entertain here. But please take a shot at it, and I promise not to throw tomatoes at you for the effort!

One Response to “Produce Pricing Puzzle”

  1. Harry says:

    Corn by the ear is easy: there may or may be a lot of stalk, and if you feel the ear, you can judge not whether the ear is full, but whether it is young corn.

    If you are in the farmers’ market in Berkeley, you buy cucumbers by the piece, tomatoes and zucchini by the pound, and marijuana by the key. Bet they never asked any microeconomic questions.

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