Crazy Prices


Everyone knew that prices could vary, and a lot, from one moment to the next. The good opportunities were to be caught on the fly! The prices of air tickets, trains, and for any other trip, have always fluctuated. Concerts, hotel rooms, holidays, clothes, shoes, technological gadgets, auction items of all kinds could cost from a few cents to several hundred euros.

Also there were the currency changes to keep in mind, sometimes a purchase in pounds, dollars or maybe bitcoins could be extremely convenient. Not to mention the Asian sites, which often sold the same consumer goods at bargain prices. To only discover later that, after exceeding a certain, rather modest, price, the shipping costs, the customs taxes and the added VAT caused the bill to rise, and by quite a lot.

Cecilia was certainly not a novice navigator, on the contrary, she was well aware of the mirrors for larks scattered everywhere on the Net. Often friends and colleagues trusted her for advice, and she always pulled an unmissable deal out of the hat, and really cool tricks.

Yet she too was caught in the infernal machine of profiling algorithms. Three months before Christmas she received a notification from her personalized scanner, a suitably trained application capable of finding the most suitable offers for her. Two tickets, for her and another person of her choice, for one of the most popular locations of that season.

Cautious, she checked all the details. No hidden costs, all regular. Magnificent. Click, I buy it!

Unfortunately, the Paypal account that Cecilia used to speed up the purchase procedures was empty. And also the connected debit card. Cecilia didn’t trust anyone, so she occasionally topped up a card that she used only for online shopping, but she completely forgot to do it. What bad luck!

She stopped using the smartphone and moved to the laptop, it would have been faster, and also it was safer as it was set up for e-commerce. She hastened to reload the card, but it would take a few minutes even for a geek like her. Voila, now the balance was positive, and… “We are sorry, session expired”.

She had to start over. It’s okay, okay. She reloaded the page. She repeated the procedure very quickly. She had checked, everything was perfect, but one last look is not bad… It is not possible! The price had increased by 15%, and after just three minutes, four at most!

In any case, it remained a real bargain, and then it was exactly what she was looking for for the Christmas holidays. Michael would have appreciated the surprise. It’s okay, okay. Click, I buy it!

“Sorry, the last seats at this rate have just been awarded,” the laconic warning annoyed her. “Hurry! There are still two seats at the smart 2 rate!”, A new window appeared blinking on the screen to pressure her.

It is not possible! Another 15% at least, Cecilia quickly calculated. She began to feel teased, but by now the idea of the journey had nested firmly in her desires and did not want to give up. Click, I buy it!

“You are redirected to your card’s 3D authentication system, the process could take up to 30 seconds,” yet another window warned. Ah, yes! She ran to get her cell phone, beep-beep, she received the password for the double check, introduced it in the white field, click, it’s done! “Thank you for your purchase. You will receive a confirmation email as soon as possible with all your data. Goodbye”.

Cecilia had made it! But, wait… she spent almost two times what she thought at the beginning! How was this possible? She could not understand it, or even understand what had happened.

To Understand

Why do prices vary so much on the web? Contrary to what some say, it is not easy to give a satisfactory answer to this seemingly banal question. Not all sites operate in the same way and few people have access to the mysteries of software that manage price fluctuations.

However, there are some basic principles. The most important are yield management and profiling.

Yield management: practiced by some airlines already long before the invention of the Internet, it is a marketing technique that is spreading in the transport sector, in the hotel sector and in many others.

The main idea is to increase profits related to sales (“profit management”, revenue management) according to expected demand and changes in actual demand. An example instead of a long speech: if you are looking for two or three months in advance, it is quite easy to find a London-Loughborough train ticket for 25 £. However, this rate is only valid for a limited number of places. Once these tickets have been sold, a ticket can cost 39, 49, 59… up to 99 euros for the basic fare.

The closer we get to the train departure, the higher the prices will be. You may need to buy a seat in a higher and much more expensive class.

On the other hand, you may happen to find discounted first class tickets that cost less than full fare second class tickets. In short, prices fluctuate. Furthermore, it is still possible that the ticket price may decrease as the departure approaches, in the event that for example there are still many unreserved seats. In practice the manager in this case will make a sort of “sale” at the last minute, to fill the available places.

Other parameters often also come into play. If you want to travel during peak times, or during holidays or during the days considered high season for any reason, it will be difficult to find a discounted ticket.

Profiling: based on the research carried out by a user (or by other users connected to it), the same product can be offered at different prices. The price of a good or service can also vary based on all the information relating to the user available on the platform on which he wishes to make the purchase.

For example, a customer who visits the same offer multiple times can be considered a hesitant customer. The machine can raise prices so that, fearing of losing a good deal, the client decides as quickly as possible.

Some media have talked at length about IP tracking, i.e. identifying and tracking customers based on their IP address. However, it should be noted that this is just one of the many possibilities available to those who follow your every move on the web.

Good Practice

Yield management is not illegal. In any case, it is very difficult to prove that you are using illegal profiling techniques to modify the offer. The sites that use it usually use proprietary and non-public algorithms, so it is impossible to establish general rules.

To find the cheapest tickets, the general rules are always the same: buy them in advance or try your luck at the last minute. Believing in the “magical” site that always offers the “best” rates can hide nasty surprises. Some sites charge higher prices (or administrative fees) at certain times (usually in the evening) or on certain days (for example on weekends), so be careful!

The online sales sites have been designed to make you spend without thinking! They use all kinds of marketing techniques and field a plethora of tricks to make us feel like we are always making a good deal. But this is not always the case.

Among the simplest yet always effective techniques we find countdowns, for example: “this offer is still valid for 8 minutes, hurry!”, With the time that is inexorably elusive; but also persistent messages and proposals “just for you”. And remember: What is written on the screen is not always the truth!

A Word from the Hacker

A few simple tricks can help. In particular:

  • delete cookies and browsing history on the website: it is often enough to magically bring prices back to the starting point
  • use two browsers: one to browse and check prices, one to buy
  • use the smartphone to check the prices and the computer to buy. Warning! You don’t have to be logged in with the same account!
  • for other forms of tracking: use browser extensions and other tricks to avoid, limit, distort, prevent tracking

Real Hackers

In order not to be localized starting from one’s own IP address, it is also possible to browse through VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network. These real tunnels on the Internet make your traffic anonymous and therefore profiling impossible.

Free VPNs are always impractical, they can hide honey pots or other data collection systems.

Remember: “If it’s free, you’re the goods!”

A Pinch of Philosophy

The idea that a deal can be excellent for those who sell as well as for those who buy is typical of a vague yet particularly virulent ideology, the liberal extremism known as libertarianism. This set of philosophical-political-economic doctrines affirms, among other things, the theory of win-win, that is, the possibility and the need to win in every economic interaction.

But we know from experience that this is not the case at all.