High prices spell no demand problem for resurgent Uber and Lyft

A sign marks a rendezvous location for Lyft and Uber users at San Diego State University in San Diego, California, U.S., May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo/File Photo

Nov 8 (Reuters) - Uber and Lyft are emerging from the pandemic as leaner, lower-cost companies with a long-elusive operating profit and the unexpected power to raise prices without alienating riders.

Ride-hail fares have surged to unprecedented levels this year due to a driver shortage. Much to the companies' delight, riders so far appear undeterred, flocking back to the platforms in ever-greater numbers.

"I think there is generally more pricing power than anyone ever realized existed in the industry," Lyft Inc (LYFT.O) Chief Financial Officer Brian Roberts said on Tuesday. read more

On Thursday Uber Technologies Inc (UBER.N) Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi called the current environment a "giant pricing experiment."

"Even with prices being up..., we're seeing that as cities reopen, people start using the product, and they use it a lot," Khosrowshahi said.

The shift marks a significant turning point for the former start-ups, which for years sacrificed profitability to add customers, undercutting each other with consumer discounts and driver bonuses. read more

According to an analysis by YipitData, which tracks email receipts, average per-mile U.S. ride-hail charges in the third quarter were nearly 25% higher than in the comparable period in 2019.

Reuters Graphics

Graphic on per-mile ride-hail charges: https://tmsnrt.rs/3GRoghp

For airport trips, which rank among Uber's and Lyft's most profitable routes, price increases were even steeper. The average fare for a trip to and from Chicago's O'Hare airport jumped nearly 50% in the third quarter compared to 2019, according to a Reuters analysis of city data.

Reuters Graphics

Graphic on O'Hare prices: https://tmsnrt.rs/3wePBVQ

Reuters Graphics

Graphic on O'Hare trips: https://tmsnrt.rs/3we9aO0

Higher prices benefit the companies, which take a percentage cut from each ride. They also have resulted in record earnings for drivers, who also benefited from massive driver incentives paid by Uber and Lyft to lure them back, the companies said. Uber drivers and food couriers in the third quarter earned $8.6 billion, 60% more than the year prior, with driver pay growth outpacing that of gross bookings, Uber said Thursday.

While total driver supply remains below pre-pandemic levels, the companies said they were confident more drivers would return without additional incentives. They said they would taper off additional driver bonuses in the coming months.

Lyft's Roberts said the company would fund driver incentives during particularly busy times through elevated consumer prices.

"We will likely see elevated prices for some time, particularly given the inflationary environment we are experiencing now," said Michael Erstad, an analyst at research firm M Science.

Uber's delivery business, which emerged as a backbone during the pandemic, also has avoided a post-pandemic let down.

Uber on Thursday reported stable delivery bookings, even as more people resumed going out. Its core restaurant delivery business Eats even reported its first operating profit, driven by better cost management and fewer consumer discounts, Uber said.

Higher prices combined with more efficient budgeting could boost margins in the coming year.

Both companies made drastic cuts during the pandemic to reduce their overall cost base. Those efficiencies, particularly in variable costs, will show as demand scales back up, the companies said.

But as inflationary concerns rise and ridership levels remain some 35% below pre-pandemic levels, Uber and Lyft need to strike a balance between price increases and consumer loyalty.

"There will always be a ride at today's price point, which might be a faster pickup," Lyft President John Zimmer said in a Reuters interview. "But it's really about finding the right ride for the right customer at the right time," he said, adding that consumers wanting a cheaper ride might have to wait longer.

Reporting by Tina Bellon in Austin, Texas and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Henderson and David Gregorio

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

U.S.-based business and finance journalist covering Uber, Lyft, Tesla and larger auto and transportation trends with a focus on electrification, tech, safety and regulation. Data-driven reporter with a track record of uncovering corporate strategies through data analysis. Previous work includes breaking news on the U.S. legal team and covering politics and companies from the German bureau.