There is often a lack of reliable quality provision in many markets in developing countries and firms generally lack a reputation for quality. One potential explanation is that mistrust due to past bad behavior can make reputation-building difficult. I examine this hypothesis in a setting that features typical market conditions in developing countries: the retail watermelon markets in a major Chinese city. I first demonstrate empirically that there is substantial asymmetric information between sellers and buyers on quality and a stark absence of quality premium at baseline. I then randomly introduce one of two branding technologies into 40 out of 60 markets–one sticker label that is widely used and counterfeited and one novel expensive laser-cut label. The experiment findings show that laser-branding induced sellers to provide higher quality and led to higher sales profits. However, after the intervention was withdrawn, all markets reverted back to baseline. I incorporate the experimental variation into an empirical model of consumer learning and seller reputation building. The results suggest that consumers are hesitant to upgrade their perception under stickers, which makes reputation-building a low-return investment. While the new technology enhances learning, the resulting increase in profits is not sufficient to cover the fixed cost of the technology for small individual sellers. Counterfactual analysis shows that information friction and fragmented market lead to significant under-provision of quality.
Bai, Jie. "Melons as Lemons: Asymmetric Information, Consumer Learning and Seller Reputation." CID Faculty Working Paper Series, March 2021.