Why do franchisees stay in a money-losing venture much longer than an independent business person would?

It’s because of the actual nature of franchising.

Problematic Hadfield

Specifically the sunk cost investment dilemma that manifests itself in franchisor opportunism.

B. The Franchisee’s Problem: Opportunism
… An unrestricted exercise of control by the franchisor will favor the franchisor’s interests over the franchisee’s and create an equally significant problem for the franchisee: risk of opportunism.

For the franchisee, the most significant economic feature of franchising is the allocation of capital investments. Franchisees are distinct from ordinary employees because they have made capital investments in the business. These investments, however, are normally highly idiosyncratic, meaning that a large fraction of the franchise assets often have a greatly diminished value if employed in another line of business. Consequently, the costs of establishing a franchise are effectively sunk costs, which, once expended, are not easily recovered if the franchise goes out of business.

Sunk costs play an important role in creating the incentives that operate within an established relationship. This is best understood by considering the difference between fixed costs (overhead or up-front costs) that are sunk and those that are recoverable. For example, consider a business in which a variable cost of production has increased dramatically, so that the highest price in the business can charge for its product covers only the marginal cost of producing it, leaving nothing to contribute to fixed costs. Although the business can cover its variable expenses, such as wages and ingredients, it is making negative profits because it has nothing left over on its investment in overhead assets. If the business can resell these assets to recover its fixed costs, then the business can raise its profits to zero by shutting down and selling off the assets. If, however, these assets are sunk assets, then, by definition, their sale will not recover their full cost; shutting down will still leave the business with negative profits. If the business has any revenue left after paying variable costs to defray the cost of these assets, the profit-maximizing decision is to continue to operate, instead of junking the assets entirely and losing the whole investment. The key difference is that a business with recoverable fixed costs will shut down as soon as it shows losses, employing its capital more profitably elsewhere. A business with sunk costs, on the other hand, will continue to operate even though it has never recovered its investments in fixed costs, and it will not shut down until the amount it is losing exceeds what it would lose by simply abandoning the investment. [my emphasis]

The incentive that causes a business with sunk costs to stay in operation despite losses makes franchisees vulnerable to franchisor behavior known as “opportunism.”. Because the franchisee will continue to operate even if it is not recovering its sunk investment, the franchisor can make decisions that induce such losses without the franchisee going out of business. When these decisions benefit the franchisor at the expense of the franchisee, the franchisor opportunistically extracts a portion of the franchisee’s sunk costs. A franchisor can potentially extract this value from the franchise directly in a number of ways: it can raise the price of goods sold to franchisees, increase rent, boost royalties through an increase in the required volume of a franchise, levy fees, or divert advertising funds to general corporate uses. Extractions can occur indirectly as well. To increase the price of new franchises, a franchisor could require franchisees to make excessive advertising investments, to participate in promotional programs which are not cost-effective, or to undertake unnecessary renovations.

Just as the risk of free-riding makes control a central concern for the franchisor, the risk that franchisors will extract sunk costs makes opportunism a central concern for franchisees. These concerns meet head on: Where franchisors seek to expand their control, franchisees seek to erect boundaries. In some circumstances a franchisor’s decision to require increased advertising by franchisees, for example will reflect a legitimate exercise of franchisor control to overcome free-riding. But in other circumstances, it will reflect only opportunism.

Excerpt from Problematic Relations: Franchising and the Law of Incomplete Contracts, Gillian K. Hadfield. See full 1990 Stanford Law Review article on WikiFranchise.org

Many decades of very profitable franchisee relationships can

turn on a dime

when the franchisor decides to exercise their discretion in a more self-interested way.

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