EC Are Retailers Killing True Free-Market Pricing?

American stores are dropping like flies. More than 8,600 retail locations could close their doors in 2017, according to a recent Credit Suisse report.

On the other hand, people are still shopping, just in different ways. And the shift from brick-and-mortar stores to “online malls” has many consequences we don’t even understand yet.

For example, it’s becoming clear that online retailers aren’t shy about using our own data against us. What do you call a market in which the price you pay depends on who you are?

Shopping the Shoppers

On the surface, online shopping seems to favor shoppers. It’s easy to compare prices, shipping cost and time, sales tax, and other factors to get the best deal. Retailers have to offer lower prices to make you buy, right?

Well, maybe. Last week, I read a fascinating Atlantic Monthly article by Jerry Useem: “How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All.” It’s about the sophisticated ways online merchants adjust and even personalize prices to maximize revenue. A quick excerpt:

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted how sophisticated these algorithms have become,” says Robert Dolan, a marketing professor at Harvard. “I certainly didn’t.” 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 neighbor—may become an increasingly unknowable thing. “Many moons ago, there used to be one price for something,” Dolan notes. Now the simplest of questions—what’s the true price of pumpkin-pie spice?—is subject to a Heisenberg level of uncertainty.

Which raises a bigger question: Could the internet, whose transparency was supposed to empower consumers, be doing the opposite?

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