How Web Sites Vary Prices Based On Personal Data (And What You Can Do About It)

It should come as no surprise that online retailers can change prices depending on your location, browser or and operating system. But what’s really going on here? Let’s take a look at the tactics retailers use to suggest different prices to you, and how you can work around them.

Prices change all the time in brick and mortar stores based on location, but when you’re shopping online it’s assumed that everyone’s getting the same deal. That’s not always the case, and as it turns out, certain retailers change the price based on location with “dynamic pricing.”

How Web Sites Vary Prices

It’s no surprise that some elements of pricing at online stores vary; postage to Australia will be different from postage to Europe. But that isn’t always transparent. One of the more infamous examples is Book Depository, which claims free worldwide shipping but actually adjusts its price based on your location (As a result, it’s possible to get even cheaper prices with a simple hack.)

In other cases, the basis for discrimination is less obvious. As early as 2000, Amazon tested dynamic pricing on DVDs by offering different prices to customers based on location and other factors (one example was the Complete Second Season of the X-Files at: $89.99, $97.49 and $104.99). Amazon copped flack and quickly dropped the practice, but many other retailers adopted it.

In 2010, Slate spoke with a few of the programmers behind dynamic pricing to see just how far spread the situation was:

One computer scientist who builds smart sites for online retailers — with a nondisclosure agreement, hence the anonymity — says that concerns about different customers getting different price quotes for the same good are probably overblown. Some retailers do it, particularly when gauging the market for certain items… major retailers are getting much more sophisticated and subtle about ways to game their shoppers. It’s common for big retail web sites to direct different users to different deals, offers, or items based on their purchase histories or cookies… And companies frequently offer special deals for customers with a few items in their shopping bags-from discounts on additional items, to free shipping, to coupons for future purchases. Ingenuity, rather than simple price-tampering, is now the name of the game.

In the US, offers may be varied based on area of residence. That’s slightly less common in Australia, if only because of the smaller population.

The operating system you use plays a role too. Some providers will offer cheaper deals on mobile apps. Travel site Orbitz highlighted more expensive hotels when users are browsing on a Mac, on the assumption that Mac owners typically have higher household incomes.

How To Make Sure You Get the Best Deal

So, what can you actually do about this? The most important point: shop around carefully and don’t dive on the first deal you see. Beyond that, there are some technical tweaks you can make.

Change Your IP Address

Retailers can tell where you are through two distinct methods: you tell them where you are (via an address), or they deduce your location from your IP address. If you suspect a site is gaming pricing based on your IP address, either a proxy server or VPN. Changing your IP address doesn’t guarantee you’ll end up with a better deal, but you’ll at least know if the sites you frequent are changing the price on you. (This is the basis of the Book Depository price hack we mentioned earlier.)

Browse Incognito Or Disable Third-Party Cookies

Another common way retailers track your spending habits is through browser cookies. If you want to disable this, you need to either shop in your browser’s incognito or private mode, or block third party cookies. NBC Bay Area also suggests using one browser for shopping and the other for purchasing if you’re especially worried about dynamic pricing altering your deals.

Check Mobile Prices Before You Buy

An easy way to check if your browser or operating system is a factor is to double-check pricing on your phone. If you see different prices on the same site purely by changing device, shenanigans are afoot.

Another option is to change your “user agent” (which is how your browser identifies itself to sites). You can change your user agent in any browser (see our guide for the full details).

Dynamic pricing isn’t a new development, and it’s far from universal. Ultimately, your best defence is to be a smart consumer: shop around, make sure you understand the total cost, and don’t commit to a deal in a rush just because it claims to be a “special”.

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