“If you were to walk into a brick and mortar store and they were offering better prices for less affluent people there would be a revolt, right? No one would stand for this.” Christo Wilson, a computer scientist at Northeastern University. But on the Internet, he says,anything goes when it comes to pricing. “It is super subjective. Everything can be personalized.”
Wilson and his colleagues analyzed just how personal online shopping can get. They compared the search results of 300 real-world users to searches by cookie-free, fake accounts on 16 major e-commerce sites. Turns out half the sites personalized search results, based on who was searching. Especially travel sites. Expedia and Hotels.com prioritized more expensive hotels for certain users; and Priceline skewed search results based on past purchases.
But Wilson’s favorite example of variable online pricing was HomeDepot.com – where shoppers on mobile devices tend to be offered much more expensive items. “It’s like you went on your desktop and you search for a table and they give you a plastic folding table; but you search from your phone and they give you a mahogany dining room table.” The researchers will present their findings on November 6th at the Internet Measurement Conference in Vancouver. [Aniko Hannak et al: Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-commerce Web Sites]
For all you comparison shoppers, here’s Wilson’s advice on how to beat the bots. “Do the search from your desktop, as you normally would. You should also do the search from an incognito or a private window. You should also then do the search from your mobile, or your tablet. And then if you’re really paranoid, you should also talk to a friend or a family member or friend, and have them also do the search.” We’ve gone from brick and mortar…to click and be mortified.
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