When Alexander Turney Stewart opened a brand new store in New York in the 1820s, he adopted a radical and original policy.
All goods had a fixed price. No longer would salesmen size up the apparent wealth of a customer and see how much they could get away with charging.
Rival retailers predicted the Irishman would be bankrupt within a week. Instead, he became a multi-millionaire and A. T. Stewart & Co was, for some time, the world’s biggest department store.
The idea that shops charge a set price for goods has been the norm for almost 200 years — but that’s changing thanks to the internet.
Most of us assume that prices at Amazon, the online retail giant, are not just low, but stable.
However, remarkable new analysis of the price of 100 random products during the course of year showed prices fluctuated by up to 260 per cent between the highest and lowest points, leaving customers who bought at the wrong time hundreds of pounds out of pocket.
The research, using data from CamelCamelCamel, a price-tracking website, found that a paddle board, for example, could be bought for as little as £234.87 or as much as £699 — a difference of £464.13 over a year.
A Jamie Oliver stainless steel induction saucepan changed price 51 times between first going on sale on Amazon in November 2016 and August this year, ranging in price from £44 to £18.27.
New analysis of the price of 100 random products during the course of year showed prices fluctuated by up to 260 per cent between the highest and lowest points, leaving customers out of pocket
Some prices changed by large amounts on a weekly basis. On average, each product changed price every five days and one product changed price 300 times in a year. For example, the DVD of Stephen King’s 1990 thriller It changed price 24 times a month.
This strategy of prices moving up and down on a regular basis — and in real time — is known in the industry as ‘dynamic pricing’.
It is a technique that has long been used in the airline industry to sell as many seats as possible, as profitably as possible.
Some consumers have also experienced it with Uber, the app-based minicab company, which offers low fares compared with black taxis most of the time, but which sometimes adopts ‘surge pricing’ during periods of high demand.
Dynamic pricing is increasingly being used by online retailers, particularly Amazon.
Philip Downer is the former managing director of Borders, the High Street bookstore chain that faced fierce competition from the online giant.
He now runs small gift shops in Dorking, Surrey, and follows Amazon developments closely.
‘This price instability means the only certainty is that you can never be certain you are getting the best price for anything,’ he says.
‘Indeed, you probably never are getting the best price for anything. One senses as a consumer that they are playing games with you.’
Earlier this month, Amazon in the U.S. came under fire for allegedly using dynamic pricing to take advantage of Hurricane Irma.
Customers in storm-hit Florida took to social media to complain that packages of Nestle water were selling for $25 on Amazon, yet prices for those in the north-east of the country showed the same case of water selling for $18.50.
Amazon strongly denied that it was adopting ‘surge pricing’ for bottled water and insisted it did not alter prices according to the area of the country.
A spokesperson explained that lower-priced offers were quickly selling out due to a spike in demand. That, in turn, was leaving higher-priced offers from third-party sellers that use Amazon.
However, there is strong anecdotal evidence that all online retailers, not just Amazon, tweak prices of some products according to supply and demand.
Another price-tracking website is Idealo, which monitors 183 million live prices across 30,000 shops in Europe, including Amazon, Argos, John Lewis and Asos.
Over the course of three months, it studied a selection of consumer electronics, such as Fitbit fitness devices and computer games, to see how the average price fluctuated throughout the week.
In nearly all cases, prices were lower on a Monday or Tuesday — the least popular days of the week to shop online, according to retailers, and they were more expensive in the run-up to the weekend, when the bulk of online shopping takes place.
For instance, the average price of a Fitbit Charge HR was £89 on a Monday but £94.64 on a Saturday. Call of Duty: Black Ops III, a computer game, cost £12.49 on a Monday but £16.99 on a Friday and Saturday.
The average difference between a Monday and Saturday across all video games is 15 per cent, according to Idealo. The price difference for a selection of four family games, including Monopoly and Articulate, was 18 per cent depending on the day of the week.
‘It is supply and demand driven, absolutely,’ says John Hoad at Idealo, which is based in Germany.
‘Just look at the Lego Millennium Falcon, which is a marriage of two very popular toy trends: Lego and Star Wars.’
On May 2, it was priced, on average, at £81.66 across all the retailers it monitors, including Amazon. On May 3, the day before so-called Star Wars Day, which occurs each year on May 4 and is hugely popular with fans, it shot up to £94.90, a 16 per cent leap — ‘a simple case of taking advantage of demand around Star Wars Day,’ says Hoad. On May 5, the price went back down to £83.99.
A retailer is perfectly within their rights to fluctuate prices according to supply and demand, but consumer experts worry that retailers have the potential to take it a step further.
With all the data that online retailers hold on customers, could they alter the prices according to who was doing the shopping?
In 2012, a Wall Street Journal investigation discovered online companies, including office-supply shop Staples and furniture retailer Home Depot, showed customers different prices based on ‘a range of characteristics that could be discovered about the user’.
Customers, for instance, in locations with a higher average income — and perhaps more buying choice — were generally shown lower prices. Another study, in Spain, showed that the price of the headphones Google recommends to you in its ads correlated with how budget-conscious your web history showed you to be.
The travel site Orbitz made headlines when it was revealed to have calculated that Apple Mac users were prepared to pay 20 to 30 per cent more on hotels than users of other computer brands, and to have adjusted pricing accordingly.
Ratula Chakraborty, senior lecturer in business management at the University of East Anglia, and an expert in pricing, says: ‘So-called first-degree price discrimination, when prices are aimed at the individual by identifying them, is a very contentious subject, as Amazon found to its cost several years ago when it started trialling targeted higher prices to consumers based on their shopping history, which it could monitor.’
This was back in 2000, when online retailing was just taking off. Amazon was found to have charged some people more than others for the same DVD, with some alleging that older people were charged a higher price.
Every time you visit a website, the company behind it downloads a tracker onto your computer, known as a cookie
Within a fortnight Amazon was forced to apologise, issue refunds and strenuously state it never tests prices based on customer demographics.
An Amazon spokesman reiterated its position to the Mail this week, saying it might alter prices according to a customer’s location but does ‘not engage in surge pricing or vary its prices by demographics’. But, as Chakraborty makes clear, it is increasingly easy, in theory, for online retailers to use data they have gathered to change prices according to the customer.
Every time you visit a website, the company behind it downloads a tracker onto your computer, known as a cookie. These monitor what pages of the website you use and how frequently you click on a particular page.
In addition, in nearly all cases you have to hand over your email address to an online shop when you make a purchase; this can then be easily linked to your actual postcode, and other details available about you online, which in turn can be used to estimate your wealth thanks to large consumer databases that segment the population of Britain into about 60 different socio-economic categories.
John Readman, marketing director at Summit, a company that helps online retailers use this sort of customer data to boost their sales, says: ‘What’s fascinating with dynamic pricing is the amount of audience data that is now available to retailers, as consumers move around the internet.
‘Potentially, an unscrupulous or profit-hungry retailer could change the price of a product based on how much they want that product. That is technically possible.’
He insists that no retailer he has ever worked with has used data in this way to profiteer.
Instead, ‘it’s more about reducing the price to returning customers or to loyal customers to get them over the line’.
In other words, most retailers want to convert a browser into a buyer rather than make a bit more profit out of an individual buyer.
What is revealing, however, is how Readman shops online.
He does his initial searches for high-value products and then makes his purchases using an ‘incognito logged-out browser’.
This is a button most web browsers, such as Chrome or Internet Explorer, have (see box above for how to find this). Once clicked, users can visit web pages without the sites being able to track the identity of the consumer.
‘I have certainly seen different results from when I am logged in than when I am on an incognito browser,’ says Readman.
He says this is mostly true for travel and hotel websites, but he has also spotted different prices for the same product on Amazon.
Amazon’s strength is in ‘bundling’, he adds.
He is referring to the practice by which once you’ve selected your purchase, up will pop a selection of related items that, apparently, are ‘frequently bought together’ by other customers, in order to tempt you further.
‘Nearly 10 per cent of all their sales come from that extra bundling,’ Readman says. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not showing you the cheapest one on the bundle, but the one they are making the most [profit] margin on.’
In the UK, only £16 in every £100 is spent online. But dynamic pricing could soon enter the High Street thanks to technology called electronic shelf-edge labelling.
A number of retailers have started to experiment with electronic displays, rather than paper labels on their shelves.
Andrew Dark, is the chief executive of Display Data, which has developed electronic labels which are so high resolution they look like a printed ticket.
‘People can’t work out it isn’t paper,’ he says. The main benefit of this technology for retailers is cost-cutting.
Display Data has worked with both Morrisons, at its Guiseley branch in Leeds, and Tesco, at Braintree in Essex, to install a trial of electronic price displays.
‘It means the retailer doesn’t have to laboriously print a label, get a human being to cut it out, walk it to a specific location in an aisle and put it in the shelf,’ says Mr Dark.
‘Changing 50 items in 1,000 stores just isn’t easy to do manually. If you speak to store colleagues, they hate it. It’s so laborious.’
His system allows someone to change the price in thousands of stores within 17 seconds with the push of a button.
The supermarkets are adamant that they have no intention of using ‘dynamic pricing’ to push up the price of bottles of wine to commuters in the evening, for instance, or the price of umbrellas when it is raining.
A source close to Morrisons said: ‘Our customers would murder us if we did that. Yes, it’s technically possible, but as it is so competitive out there, we would be crazy to try this.’
However, electronic shelf-edge labelling has been used to cut prices throughout the day, explains Dark, one of whose customers is Kaufland, a large supermarket group based in Germany, which uses it particularly to encourage customers to buy fresh fruit and vegetables near to their use-by dates.
‘We buy so much with use-by dates and if it doesn’t get sold, it gets thrown away. That’s one of the biggest drivers in dynamic pricing: to reduce that wastage by lowering prices,’ he says.
Mr Dark believes that major British supermarkets as well as DIY shops and electronics stores will start to adopt the technology.
‘This is no longer a trial. The system works. You will see chains roll out this technology from the end of this year; you will start to see mass deployment across various UK retailers.’
If customers really do benefit, by seeing more promotions and discounts towards the end of the day, undoubtedly they will cheer this development.
But so much of dynamic pricing, especially online, with the continual fluctuation of prices, seems designed only to confuse the consumer. As Mr Downer says: ‘What I can’t stand is the message you get from politicians that if you are ripped off it is somehow your fault for not shopping around.
‘As if people have the time, let alone inclination or capability, to do all this.’