DP12910 | Fading Choice: Transport Costs and Variety in Consumer Goods

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The lack of market development in remote areas is usually measured by spatial variation in prices for a given set of consumer goods. We focus instead on the way distance constrains the choices consumers can make. We construct a model of monopolistic competition between traders moving goods from market towns to rural areas. An increase in transport costs reduces consumer welfare not only through lower incomes for farm households and higher prices for manufactures but also through reduced availability of manufactures: choice fades with distance. The model allows for heterogeneity of villages in terms of market size and the distribution of income. We test the model using data from a purpose-designed survey of shops and consumers in rural villages in Ethiopia. Falling transport costs, larger market size and higher inequality dramatically raise variety of items and brands available locally. We use data on prices of matched source and destination goods to estimate similar tastes for variety across space and estimate an average markup of 10-15 percent. We use these results to estimate a lower bound on the welfare costs of falling variety at between 5-7 percent of expenditures on manufactured consumer goods. Our results suggest ignoring the costs of lower variety in remote places will mean that the level of poverty is underestimated while the rate at which poverty declines is underestimated as well.