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The Almighty Buck Businesses The Internet

How To Beat Online Price Discrimination 163

New submitter Intrepid imaginaut sends word of a study (PDF) into how e-commerce sites show online shoppers different prices depending on how they found an item and what the sites know about the customer. "For instance, the study found, users logged in to Cheaptickets and Orbitz saw lower hotel prices than shoppers who were not registered with the sites. Home Depot shoppers on mobile devices saw higher prices than users browsing on desktops. Some searchers on Expedia and Hotels.com consistently received higher-priced options, a result of randomized testing by the websites. Shoppers at Sears, Walmart, Priceline, and others received results in a different order than control groups, a tactic known as “steering.” To get a better price, the article advises deleting cookies before shopping, using your browser's private mode, putting the items in your shopping cart without buying them right away, and using tools like Camelcamelcamel to keep an eye out for price drops.
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How To Beat Online Price Discrimination

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:01AM (#48221147)

    I was trying to shop for resorts on my Linux box here and I got a popup stating, "There's nothing here you can afford.Try Six Flags during the work week."

    True story.

    • not true. the number of people using Linux for surfing the web is so small, nobody would bother special casing them.

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
        Half of them run Windows in a VM (or otherwise emulate windows) so they can run IE, for the piles of sites written as IE-only.
        • Half of them run Windows in a VM (or otherwise emulate windows) so they can run IE, for the piles of sites written as IE-only.

          I can't remember when I met a site that didn't work and told me to switch to using IE. In fact, it's pretty rare to find a site with obviously borked functionality.

          Examples? Seriously, enough people use non-IE browsers (whatever it is on Macs [not used one for years] / Chrome / Firefox / Opera) and have done for getting on for a decade now that any new site has no choice but to work

          • by AK Marc ( 707885 )

            Examples?

            Every Intranet I've ever used. Any company large enough to have a formal intranet on separate systems, also moved slow enough that they were all made in the stone age. Seriously, I've worked for a large telco that had the intranet integrated with everything MS and only on older IE (IE 6), so that they are still using XP now, because they are so slow to react. No, I don't work there anymore.

            Everyone was also denied local admin to their own machine. So if you ran across a site that didn't work in IE, you

            • Intranets ... oh,I'll switch to using the tablet with a keyboard instead of the phone.
            • Who designed this iteration of the mobile interface - I can't read the message I'm replying to. designed for posting bullshit, not content.

              Every Intranet I've ever used.

              The norm is that if we have access to the cliient's intranet, then it will be by taking data on $device$ to an employee, who posts it for us. Since each site gets rigged up and torn down several times a year, that's the level of contact that the client wants with their IT systems. Data comes in to them through a sheep-dip machine, or throug

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:04AM (#48221179)

    As a frequent flyer, I too could benefit from defeating their price tricks, but really before I draw any conclusions of my own I'm wondering do we have any word from Bennett Haselton. Any insight of his would be appreciated on this topic. He's a frequent contributor.

    • do we have any word from Bennett Haselton

      I'd love to see the same: "Brevity is the soul of wit." How 'bout it, Bennett? One word?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        do we have any word from Bennett Haselton

        I'd love to see the same: "Brevity is the soul of wit." How 'bout it, Bennett? One word?

        Meh.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I noticed that hotels.com offered me cheaper prices when I logged on from china and hong kong than if I logged in from sweden.

      Might be worth using a VPN to simulate being from a "poorer" country.

    • Unfortunately he's too busy trying to come up with algorithms to solve the first-world problems of Burning Man.

  • Contradiction (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:14AM (#48221315)

    "For instance, the study found, users logged in to Cheaptickets and Orbitz saw lower hotel prices"

    "To get a better price, the article advises deleting cookies before shopping"

    Ummm, what?

    • Re:Contradiction (Score:5, Informative)

      by dunkindave ( 1801608 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @12:23PM (#48222161)
      The article talks about this. They say use a private window, and thereby no cookies, to see what a generic visitor would see, then also look in you regular browser window, and compare the two. Sometimes your cookies may help you get a lower price, in which case use them, and sometimes they may hurt, in which case use the private window that isn't sharing them.
  • by skids ( 119237 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:17AM (#48221357) Homepage

    Sales I don't mind. Sometimes you have to move old inventory. But coupons are just a PITA that only exist to give housewives/househusbands something to do with their time. So online shopping with all its contortions and the web20-ification of advertising just drives me completely up the damn wall. The minute I open a browser to buy something I can feel my stress levels rising and if I'm lucky I'll finish buying it before all the cussing and ranting force me to close the tab before I damage my PC.

    • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Friday October 24, 2014 @12:32PM (#48222269) Homepage Journal

      that only exist to give housewives/househusbands something to do with their time

      Definitely not - they're there to get people to make decisions that they otherwise wouldn't make, usually bad ones.

      People love to get something for nothing. "$1 off a "premium" bag of wavy potato chips! Hell yeah!" No matter that the generic wavy potato chips are still fifty cents less and taste the same - it's a DEAL!

      Kohls is famous for marking up their goods by 300% and then having a 30% off sale. The lines are out the door for "the savings". JC Penney tried to do away with that scheme and nearly went bankrupt. They went back to it this year and are returning to profitability.

      If you don't have a concrete estimate of value for what you're purchasing, you can get wildly abused by the marketeers. That value will be subjective, but you better darn well know what it is if you don't want to get taken. I buy clothes at Kohls, but unless I'm desperate I limit myself to the 70% off clearance rack. That's where I find my valuation meets their prices. YMMV.

    • One important use for coupons is price discrimination [wikipedia.org]. You might be willing to pay up to $1 for a gallon of milk, while a super-rich person might be willing to pay up to $100 if there were no alternative. But because the rich person can buy at the same grocery story as you, the store loses the potential $99 in profit. In a competitive marketprice, loss of profits for the store translates into higher prices for everyone. Coupons are one rough form of adjusting prices - rich people think that collecting coupo

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Could someone clarify this for me "putting the items in your shopping cart without buying them right away", how will this make the item cheaper? When i put something in my cart i already know how much it is.

    • Re:say what? (Score:5, Informative)

      by jimbolauski ( 882977 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:24AM (#48221461) Journal
      Supposedly you log in and put the item in your shopping cart and leave the site. Within a couple of days the merchant contacts you with a better price for those items.
      • by Wolfrider ( 856 )

        --Amazon does this sometimes if you put things on your Wishlist. Much of the time though, they coupon/discount something you've already bought one of - which is kind of useless for high-dollar items, since you're not likely to buy another one any time soon unless it's a gift for someone else.

    • If you put items in your cart and then leave them there without purchasing, many sites have been known to email a discount offer a day or two later, to encourage you to complete the purchase. Sadly, Amazon and NewEgg don't.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      My company does this. If you put your items in the shopping cart and then leave them without buying, we have three email "triggers" that remind you those items are there. The first email just reminds you, the second offers a % discount, and the third offers a % discount + free shipping.

      Presumably, you have to have a registered account with working email address.

  • Displaying one price to a person while displaying a different price for a second person is what I would classify as false advertising.

    Especially if they're in the same area, shopping the same store. Being logged in or not should have zero effect on the price.

    • Re:Steering? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jeffb (2.718) ( 1189693 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:41AM (#48221647)

      For each person, they're displaying a price at which they'll sell to that person.

      What part of this is "false"?

      Do you also consider frequent-buyer discounts, loyalty programs, and targeted electronic coupons to be "false advertising"?

      • "Do you also consider frequent-buyer discounts, loyalty programs, and targeted electronic coupons to be "false advertising"?"

        I don't know about false advertising but what I don't like about those programs is that they transfer money from my pocket to the pockets of people who I don't think deserve my money. They are a way for people who don't like to jump through hoops to subsidize the lifestyles of people who do like to jump through hoops.

        I try to avoid companies with those types of programs, but of course

        • by Lehk228 ( 705449 )
          My best way is to use the local grocery store that doesn't have a card.

          if you want to save money on groceries just shop at Aldi's if there is one near you (there probably is if you live in the eastern US). cheaper than walmart by at least 25% and no shopping card needed.

          just make sure to bring a quarter for the cart unlocker and throw a few reusable bags in your car or scavenge any empty carboard trays off the shelves because they don't bag and you have to buy bags if you want them (6 cents no biggie)
          • If that 6 cents were no biggie, then why does Aldi make you pay it? If that quarter for the buggies were no biggie then why do they make you pay it? Is it going to be a biggie when they start making you pay for a cashier instead of using a self checkout? I bet you didn't think your friendly Aldi tip was going to turn in to such a biggie huh? :)
            • If that 6 cents were no biggie, then why does Aldi make you pay it?

              6 cents is no biggie. 6 cents * n customers is. Furthermore, why should those who who bring their own bags subsidize those who don't?

              If that quarter for the buggies were no biggie then why do they make you pay it?

              Most likely it's not a payment but a safety deposit: put the buggie where you got it and you get your quarter back. It's a pretty effective way of making people clean up after themselves.

      • What part of this is "false"?

        Better yet, what part of that is "advertising"? They're not calling the product to your attention, they're telling you what the product you're already aware of costs.

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        It depends upon how the price is presented. If the price presented is as being 'the price of the product' as in the price to all customers or the price of the product to that person. Obviously if you are not declaring that the price is not the product price to all customers but specific price to that person, that you are fraudulently misrepresenting the nature of that price and how it was achieved.

        The big lesson here, is when it is so easy to get a price on the internet don't get just one but get at leas

    • Sadly advertising and pricing are not required to be universal - as a retailer you aren't telling the person a lie about the price, you're just not telling them that you are likely to sell the item for more/less to the next customer. Whether this is a moral practice of course is an entirely different question.
      • Well, what are the bounds of this before it becomes illegal?

        OK, you're a frequent customer, and I'm willing to give you a discount. Sure, fine.

        Now, imagine someone charges you 10% more because you're not white. That's obviously going to be pretty illegal, one would think.

        If the mechanism for this, or the fact that it's even happening isn't transparent, then it's fairly arbitrary.

        • Agreed, but using your example I suspect that retailers will only charge some black people 10% more, along with some white people, based on their purchase history. This wouldn't be illegal. However as this area of marketing and price discrimination becomes more sophisticated and retailers have more data, I can see a future where, due to a few factors, a protected group would end up with universally higher prices from a store from a statistically significant sample. It is just a matter of time before some
  • by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:38AM (#48221611) Homepage
    'steering' exists in meatspace, and most consumers actively embrace it. Take the average supermarket. High value items are placed at the edges of the aisles so you'll see them first. floor tiles are set in different sized to influence your cadence and ultimately how long you spend in a particular section. the 'landing zone' of a supermarket features specially illuminated produce first, typically directly in the path of locomotion. loyaty cards belch coupons for related goods and services the grocery store wishes to 'move' that may be of a lower or higher price point. milk in the front of the store costs more than milk in the back, and its tagged and tracked through the payment system differently. Baskets are commonly difficult to find and carts have since 1970 increased 60% in size in order to induce the shopper to buy more.

    bars and resaraunts do this as well. by pricing well drinks closer or identically to call drinks, the bar discourages patrons with less income. happy hour is cheaper than saturday night, and cheaper still than valentines evening.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      we (wife/I) own three vehicles: an 08 Odyssey (kids), an 07 ES350 (her primary) & a 13 IS350C (my primary).

      if we go to a restaurant in my convertible instead of van & matre dei recommends the surf & turf special that's fine, if they add $20 to the "market price" b/c the valet tipped them off (& gets $5 kickback) that should be criminal! TFA sounds a lot more like the later...

      • Ok... fair enough, but why?

        Why should it be criminal? You use your knowledge of the marketplace to get the best deal you can. In your example, the business is using its knowledge of the marketplace to get the best deal it can.

        If you're suggesting that a business must sell at the same price to everyone, well, that has its own issues. Sounds simple, until you get into all the "what ifs".

        • It should be illegal if most people don't like it. That's how laws improve society. Why should it be illegal to play loud music in populated areas during the night? For no other reason than that's what people prefer.

          I'm not convinced that this issue meets that threshold, but maybe it does.

          • It should be illegal if most people don't like it.

            That alone shouldn't be enough...

            After all, if "most people" want to discriminate against a minority group, that should be ok, right?

            The idea is that the laws should protect everyone and not just turn into mob rule. Just because 51% of the people vote yes for something doesn't make it right.

            We had slavery in the US once, it was "legal". That doesn't make it "right".

            • by swb ( 14022 )

              We had slavery in the US once, it was "legal". That doesn't make it "right".

              As it turns out, "most people" didn't like competing against slave labor in the labor market or against giant slave-staffed plantations for farmland.

              It's cute that you think that slavery ended because the populace and the government felt high-minded and righteous about it.

              • I think you mistakenly replied to the wrong comment; it doesn't seem to be related to what I said. For instance, I never used the word "right", so any discussion of rightness and wrongness isn't related to my comment.

                Here, though, I'll reply to you: in a democracy legal action is legitimized by consensus. We can judge the consensus as good or bad, but sufficient consensus is what we require to take action. In America and many places we require a majority for most things and supermajorities of different size

            • "After all, if "most people" want to discriminate against a minority group, that should be ok, right?"

              Every law discriminates against minority groups, so you'll need to be specific. For instance, laws against murder discriminate against the minority of people who ever murder.

              Anyway, whether a certain form of discrimination is "ok" is a value judgement. What I'm saying is that if most people want a law, then that's a good enough reason to have it. In America, we have different levels of what "most" means in

      • by bws111 ( 1216812 )

        Why should it be criminal? If you don't think the surf & turf is worth an extra $20, DON'T BUY IT. Gee, that was hard to solve.

    • milk in the front of the store costs more than milk in the back, and its tagged and tracked through the payment system differently.

      Where in the world are you shopping? At the only store I frequent (Kroger) with front-and-back milk displays, it's all the same brand, same packaging, same barcode. If the barcode is the same, there's no way for the checkout system to detect where it came from and alter the price.

      Now, I do notice that the milk they put up front is older (has an earlier expiration date). That just seems like sensible inventory management to me.

  • This has been going on for a very long time, but those who have used Skyscanner (and found prices rise the more searches they run from their IP address) will know that deleting cookies alone isn't anywhere near enough. I have tested this myself years ago and had different prices for the same long haul flight on my PC using home router vs. mobile phone using cellular data. Rather than booking the flight over cellular data I waited a few days and the price on my PC returned to normal. Does anyone have any
    • by RDW ( 41497 )

      Does anyone have any other ways (elaborate or otherwise) around this problem?

      Have you tried shopping behind 7 proxies..?

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:50AM (#48221765)
    If you want a good price, you generally have to work for it, which means looking around, and waiting. Little tricks like deleting your cookies will never make a dent - how do you know they didn't decide last night to start charging "nobodies" more?

    Markets keep getting more and more efficient, and that means there are fewer and fewer "tricks," by which I mean consistently getting a better price without working at it.

    None of which is to say you "ought" to work for lower prices - how much is your time worth? You could almost always save another dime by waiting and looking more. Just check a few different products at a few different sites, and you will do OK. Don't settle into a rut, like "oh I have Amazon Prime so I just get everything from them," unless the convenience is worth getting milked.

  • Instead (Score:5, Funny)

    by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:58AM (#48221893)

    Instead, how about we just fix the problem outright....

    Setup 3 computers.
    1 with a white guy
    1 with a black guy
    1 with a woman

    make sure the appropriate people are logged in, not logged in, have cookies, etc...

    Show the price differences.
    Snap a picture, smiling white guy, sad black guy and woman...
    Post it to twitter and let the general public make their usual incorrect inference.

    Watch the hilarity ensue and the entire idea of variable pricing die in fire.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is modded funny? How about informative? Your typical liberal internet dweller with no job (because of "the man, dude") and too much free time will spend hours reposting and being outraged. It will get posted to reddit and upvoted to the top. Then, the real media, who just scan reddit for stories, will pick this up because the new liberal media mantra is "if it is an injustice to a minority, it leads".

  • No Haggle ! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by redelm ( 54142 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @11:58AM (#48221897) Homepage

    This looks like the electronic equivalent of haggling in a shop [bazaar]. Contrast this with the [anglo] best-price, take-it-or-leave it across multiple competitors. As a consumer, I vastly prefer the latter. As a seller I might prefer haggling (tied customers), but only if I have power when I buy (often I'm as tied).

    A consumer negotiating with a seller is a grand delusion. The seller knows far more about their costs and market demand than you ever can. They spend their careers at it. All you can do is walk away, hopefully there are competitors. IMHO, this is the great different between First- and Third-World economies -- competition in the former, and very-restricted (cronyism) in the latter.

    So I stay away from anything that looks like haggling (even MiR). That is my only choice.

    • Agreed, and the problem with haggling is that it takes time. If I buy a $300 piece of electronics, it is not efficient for me to spend $100 of my time to reduce the price by $50. Unfortunately if it is possible to track individual purchasers habits, vendors can continue to increase the prices those consumers see until they are essentially forced to waste time price comparing.

      Of course it won't be an "increase", Instead the "list" price will be $1000, and people will get varying discounts depending on how

    • by Zynder ( 2773551 )
      That haggling is the worst thing I hate about car shopping. When is a dealer going to start selling cars where I don't need to haggle?
  • by dunkindave ( 1801608 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @12:07PM (#48221985)
    An example of this price-adjusting practice is when we needed to order an advertising banner for my wife's business. I did a little Google searching and found halfpricebanners.com had what we wanted at a good price so we used them. A couple months latter we needed another banner so I went to their website and was surprised by the price it quoted for exactly the same kind of banner - about double as before. Being the Internet nerd I am, I surmised something was going on so I went back to Google and did the same kind of search I had done before which again produced their link. Sure enough, if I go to their site from Google (not just from their ad, even the organic listing) then their prices are half of what is offered to people who go straight to their website. From then on we always used Google first to get the "Google discount".
    • I've been in similar situations. Legality aside, I don't like that practice and a handful of times I've taken the time to email the company and tell them why I decided to use their competitor. Sometimes it has cost me a small or medium amount of money, but I wouldn't let my feelings cost me a large amount of money.

      The question I leave you with is, why don't you think you'd get an even better price by going through Lycos or HotBot? Personally I feel like a chump when I realize I'm being charged more for the

    • by rsborg ( 111459 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @01:51PM (#48223053) Homepage

      An example of this price-adjusting practice is when we needed to order an advertising banner for my wife's business. I did a little Google searching and found halfpricebanners.com had what we wanted at a good price so we used them. A couple months latter we needed another banner so I went to their website and was surprised by the price it quoted for exactly the same kind of banner - about double as before. Being the Internet nerd I am, I surmised something was going on so I went back to Google and did the same kind of search I had done before which again produced their link. Sure enough, if I go to their site from Google (not just from their ad, even the organic listing) then their prices are half of what is offered to people who go straight to their website. From then on we always used Google first to get the "Google discount".

      See, that's what gets me - the situation should be reversed - if you're a loyal customer you should be paying the same or less. The store should invest in upselling the loyal customer on upgrades or volume purchases, but double price for the same item just because you are using their site - that's just rude.

      • See, that's what gets me - the situation should be reversed - if you're a loyal customer you should be paying the same or less. The store should invest in upselling the loyal customer on upgrades or volume purchases, but double price for the same item just because you are using their site - that's just rude.

        I think what they are trying to do is the same way many companies use a low first-time rate to try to entice people to try their product so they get to know it with the hope that they will then become a loyal customer (and paying full price). This company is assuming that if you got there from a Google search, then you are shopping and they want to introduce themselves. The problem here is twofold. First, they don't let you know that you are getting a special first-time deal so you get massive sticker sh

      • Loyal customers don't use halfpricebanners.com. Their market is 100% based on price. The low price from Google is probably below cost.
      • This only works if your average customer is buying enough to make giving them deals worth it. Most small businesses probably don't need enough banners to make it worth it.
  • by magarity ( 164372 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @12:48PM (#48222475)

    At a HD I asked for something that I couldn't find and the employee said it was online only. I checked it with my phone and compared to Amazon. Right there in their store I ordered if from Amazon due to lower price. If HD is charging mobile users more, I suspect I'm not the only shopper who takes a few seconds to compare elsewhere.

  • by Alain Williams ( 2972 ) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Friday October 24, 2014 @01:16PM (#48222781) Homepage

    How difficult would it be for a firefox plugin to alter HTML headers like HTTP_USER_AGENT & HTTP_REFERER to convince the sales site that you are a poor student ? The on-line sites will howl - but if it is OK for them to profile to charge me more, then I believe that it is OK for me to game them.

    • by Falos ( 2905315 )
      They'll howl posturingly. They'll make noise about "deceptive user practices" (to say nothing of their own) but won't really care about whatever small fraction of savvy people are doing it.

      Well, as long as it requires enough savvy. If it becomes extremely easy or automated, they'll start putting actual resources behind the noise.

      Tweak a couple of words and the above two paragraphs become "same shit new day" about ignoring the clever few who dodge the suckertraps.
      • by Lehk228 ( 705449 )
        might finally see some momentum against online tracking when people realize it can be used to rip them off.
    • http://prefbar.tuxfamily.org/ [tuxfamily.org] could do that. ;)

  • by ZipK ( 1051658 ) on Friday October 24, 2014 @01:55PM (#48223089)
    How long until someone offers a service that explores multiple paths to a particular item (mobile, customer, non-customer, cleared cookies, items-in-cart, etc.) at a particular retailer and provides the best price?
    • by bazorg ( 911295 )

      A quick search in the Firefox Add-on collection shows this guy here: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-... [mozilla.org]

      I haven't tried it yet, but on their marketing blurb says that "users of X, y, z.... should try PriceBlink". This suggest to me that there's already quite a few add-ons that work for shoppers. Time to give them all a try!

    • Meh just forge your cookie and set your own price.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    A few months ago there were reports of how the website from the French rail company was increasing the price of the ticket in your basket to make you feel you had to buy before it would increase even more.

  • Counter-predatory-pricing botnets: It's only a matter of time [slashdot.org].

  • How does Camelcamelcamale avoid itself being fooled by the same tactics described here?

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