Lobster’s going for $3.99 a pound at my local Market Basket, but up the road at Oxford Creamery Route 6 in Mattapoisett, lobster rolls are still $12. Why? James Surowiecki reports in The New Yorker that there are several factors in play, but it’s mainly this: If it suddenly got cheaper, you’d be suspicious:
[A]s with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.
Restaurants also worry about the message that discounting sends. Studies dating back to the nineteen-forties show that when people can’t objectively evaluate a product before they buy it (as is the case with a meal) they often assume a correlation between price and quality. Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: people might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors. A 1996 study found that restaurants wouldn’t place more orders with wholesalers even if lobster prices fell twenty-five per cent. As the study’s authors put it, “A low price creates suspicion.” This helps explain one of the interesting strategies that restaurants have adopted to take advantage of the lower price for lobster: they keep the price of lobster entrées high, but add lower-priced items—lobster bisque, lobster mac-and-cheese, a lobster B.L.T—to the menu. That way, they can generate more business without endangering lobster’s exclusive image.
Smart shoppers should be making their own lobster rolls right now, but if you’re out & about, keep your eyes peeled for lower-priced lobster items.