If you’ve ever had that creepy feeling you’re being followed, you’re right. In fact, you’ve been tracked for so long you may not even get bugged out by it anymore.
Many of us, after a decade or more of using social media with great caution and initial paranoia, now post family photos on the regular and will wantonly throw not only our email – but our entire street address too – at any site offering a 15% discount. Meh, we’re all in the same sinking privacy boat now, right?
It’s no secret this data is used to target us with special offers and individualized pricing. Companies say it’s for consumers’ benefit – allowing them to give us lower prices for stuff we already use and introducing us to new stuff they think we’ll like. Critics say they use the data to figure out our spending limits so they can offer items at the highest possible prices without losing business. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
Safeway seemed revolutionary in 2012, with the introduction of its “Just for U” app. By offering individualized coupons and discounts, different customers paid different prices for the same items, at the same store, at the same time.
The algorithms have only become more sophisticated and prices, more elusive. As a recent article in The Atlantic describes:
The price of a can of soda in a vending machine can now vary with the temperature outside. The price of the headphones Google recommends may depend on how budget-conscious your web history shows you to be, one study found. For shoppers, that means price—not the one offered to you right now, but the one offered to you 20 minutes from now, or the one offered to me, or to your neighbour—may become an increasingly unknowable thing.
So, what’s the problem, some people ask, isn’t this what airlines have always done? The trouble is, as The Atlantic article points out, “Could the internet, whose transparency was supposed to empower consumers, be doing the opposite?”
The consequence is that shopping requires ever greater vigilance and trust of retailers begins to erode. We are back to the days of haggling at the bazaar, using “walking away” tactics to seem disinterested. On some sites, if you close your browser with items unpurchased in a virtual shopping cart, you just might get an email a few hours later with an extra discount code.
Yet there are some companies out to prove Newton’s Third Law. In 2018, Canadian skincare company Deciem lowered the retail prices of its Vitamin C products after negotiating lower costs for ethylated ascorbic acid with its suppliers. The company also removed its products from pharmacies that were imposing additional mark-ups.
Similarly, clothing retailer Everlane, with its promise of “radical transparency”, offers “Choose What You Pay” events, and provides cost breakdowns on its most popular items, and also lowers prices when its costs fall. Business Insider describes a recent example:
According to Everlane, the cost of raw cashmere fluctuates wildly, and retailers raise prices to reflect higher cashmere costs when necessary. However, they rarely lower prices when the raw cost declines. Because of their 100% transparency model, Everlane has adjusted prices to reflect the declining cashmere costs in recent years (from $125 originally to $100 for the last few years).
Companies that lower prices? Retailers that allow consumers to choose the price they pay? It does seem radical, revolutionary even, and hopefully, a sign of things to come.