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Amazon's Cookie Tax
April 15, 2008 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Whatever the market will bear. Did you know that Amazon.com charges you different prices for the same goods depending on who you are (and what your browser cookie shows?) This was news to me, but the WaPo and CNN reported it in 2005.

Some call it "price-customization" or "dynamic pricing;" others call it "price discrimination." The rest of us just want to know how to evade it.
posted by ikkyu2 (72 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Amazon.com also serves up different results every time you search and depending on what page you were on, not that it matters, because none of the results are what you are looking for. That's if they even serve up stuff that they themselves have for sale, rather than an external site or an auction or a zshop or inside a book or whatever else they have now.

Amazon.com is basically unusable nowadays. The way I evade price discrimination at Amazon.com is to shop elsewhere.
posted by DU at 9:00 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, has anyone written a bookmarklet to get the "anonymous" price for whatever you're looking at?
posted by you at 9:00 AM on April 15, 2008


Corporations dick consumers over?! Turn on CNN! OMGWTF!
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 9:03 AM on April 15, 2008


Turn on CNN! OMGWTF!

Only new crimes are worth prosecuting. Killed someone more than 3 weeks ago? Scot-free.
posted by DU at 9:07 AM on April 15, 2008


Bastards. I'm pleased I paid my $8.50 Metafilter account fee now. So I can register my disgust.
posted by seanyboy at 9:14 AM on April 15, 2008 [48 favorites]


Is this something I'd have to have disposable income to know about?
posted by cog_nate at 9:14 AM on April 15, 2008 [8 favorites]


Oh, great. If Amazon can accurately gauge how desperately I want the Hannah Montana Ultimate Pop-Star Sticker Book, I'm going to have to sell a kidney.
posted by dyoneo at 9:15 AM on April 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


When there's zero cost to perform a shopping comparison on the same item between online shops (and, in fact, there are services that do this precisely), it makes zero sense to raise prices based on customer data. You'd want to use the technology to lower prices for specific individuals to ensure their repeat business. But I guess the only people dumber than Amazon's marketing guys are some of their customers...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:19 AM on April 15, 2008


I believe they stopped doing this a few years ago, but I can't find much on their help page. They do have the following on the help page:

We offer you consistently low prices on every item in our store. All prices are listed in U.S. dollars.

Amazon.com's price for not-yet-released items sometimes changes between the time the item is listed for sale and the time it is released and shipped. Whenever you pre-order a book, CD, video, DVD, video game, or software item, the price we charge when we ship it to you will be the lowest price offered by Amazon.com between the time you place your order and the release date. The order summary in Your Account will reflect the lowest price within

Amazon.com's prices for released items will change from time to time based on a variety of factors. If Amazon.com's price for an already-released item decreases within 30 days after we ship the item to you, we'll be glad to refund the difference in price if you contact us. Please click the Customer Service button on the right side of this page, and be sure to have your order number handy so we can assist you.


I doubt they would have this policy in place if they shifted the prices from one use to another.
posted by Monday at 9:24 AM on April 15, 2008


Actually, I don't want to evade the price thing; I want to know how to get the lowest price, every time.

Any ideas?
posted by WalterMitty at 9:25 AM on April 15, 2008


I'm just here for the sexy LiveJournal avatars. What's all this about books? So is that a Rhinocorn?
posted by Toekneesan at 9:25 AM on April 15, 2008


I believe they stopped doing this a few years ago

Except that the main link is from yesterday.

Dead tree catalogs often discriminate on price as well, sending out versions with different prices to different types of customers.
posted by caddis at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2008


I just tested this for the specific item in question. I'm an Amazon Prime member, and the price was $671.37 both logged in and after I'd wiped my Amazon cookies. (Without the cookies I had an extra "click to see price" I had to do.) Which isn't to say they weren't playing this game at some point.

I'm not terribly surprised or upset by dynamic pricing in some circumstances. But Amazon Prime is all about being "in the club" and being a good Amazon customer. If it turns out they're charging us extra, I'd be very offended.
posted by Nelson at 9:39 AM on April 15, 2008


(The last comment on that live journal page posits a different explanation for the prices the person saw; I don't think that it is 100% clear that Amazon is still engaging in the practice just from what is shown there.)

It's with airline tickets that most of us encounter price differentiation. (And maybe car shopping, although it works in much cruder ways with that, I think.) And with things like cellphone contracts, where you can pay all different prices for the same basic service -- being able to make phone calls -- depending on the kind of contract you choose, or the discounts you negotiate.
posted by Forktine at 9:49 AM on April 15, 2008


Well timed FPP.

I've had Prime since it was offered and have been an Amazon loyalist since '98. After reading this, I checked and found I was set to autorenew on 4/19 and stopped it. I've found in quite a few ways that my loyalty to them gets me nothing in return and even the suggestion of this is like, "Well, yes, ok, that's a good final straw."

Considering that their site is unusable for finding what I want and, whether or not they're price shifting, I find that their pricing on everything but books and DVDs doesn't really make it that worth it for me, it's a good time to phase it back.

If it's one more step in the direction away from my habits of brainless consumerism (text to buy? What a great idea!), it'll do me good. And I might actually hit my New Years resolution of hitting the library instead.

Now to force myself to cancel my Amazon credit card...
posted by Gucky at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2008


Price discrimination can be offensive at an emotional level, but it actually can function to get a particular good to more people at a satisfactory price than a level price would. It's hard to get too worked up over potential price discrimination abuse in this context, because consumers can so easily compare online prices.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 9:56 AM on April 15, 2008


It's with airline tickets that most of us encounter price differentiation.

I've seen airline tickets fluctuate by the hour within a day, going up and down presumably to target the business traveler vs the leisure traveler.
posted by smackfu at 9:59 AM on April 15, 2008


In the past couple yrs I've become suspicious about cookies and pricing when it comes to shopping around for airfare on Expedia, Travelocity, etc. I tried a bit of research this last time, when, having seen a certain fare but then waited, the prices all jumped up. I guess I don't know how to research this or I am wrong.. since I couldn't show "cookie-adjusting." Still, the feeling lingers: when we shop for airfare and not buy it immediately, then check it again, it goes up. I realize that airfares are screwy and going up anyway, but now that I think of it, cookie-adjustment would be so damn easy for the ticket brokers "Hey, this computer ID is planning a trip and has checked, and checked, but then waited. Let's screw him because the traveler can't back out now"... would be so easy.

Does this ring a bell?
posted by yazi at 10:01 AM on April 15, 2008


The last comment on that live journal page posits a different explanation for the prices the person saw

That comment is worth reading.
The $670 price you're seeing isn't from Amazon, it's from one of the Amazon affiliate merchants (most likely Beach Camera, which has the $670 price). You can tell that that's the case in your screenshot because of the "In Stock" line -- that's the standard line for an affiliate that provides stock information to Amazon.
If that's the explanation then it makes perfect sense. If you're a Prime member your best option is to buy it directly from Amazon for $682 + $0 shipping. If you're not, then $670 + $15 shipping (or whatever) may be a better deal.
posted by Nelson at 10:04 AM on April 15, 2008 [5 favorites]


Well, it is fairly easy to check airfares on a second source. I think the main reason for the changes you see is that airline seats are generally sold in class buckets. Not first class, economy, but fare classes like Y, B, H, M, etc. So a given plane has 10 Y economy seats available, and 2 B economy seats. Both have a set price, with Y being higher than B. Than someone buys the 2 B seats. So in your search, the price goes up. But if the Y seats aren't selling, the airline can change some of them to B seats. So the prices goes back down. The airline is constantly playing games to sell all the seats at the highest average price.
posted by smackfu at 10:08 AM on April 15, 2008


I heard that they had to do this for awhile in order to recoup the money lost due giving away a bunch of Minolta Maxxum SLRs.
posted by sciurus at 10:15 AM on April 15, 2008 [6 favorites]


Wow! Commerce has always had elastic prices. Every market 5,000 years ago had different prices for different consumers. My business today has different prices for different customers. It's interesting how they managed to implement an age old idea onto a new way of selling things, but not really worth any outrage.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:18 AM on April 15, 2008


Considering that their site is unusable for finding what I want and, whether or not they're price shifting, I find that their pricing on everything but books and DVDs doesn't really make it that worth it for me

I think maybe you haven't been to a Borders or a Barnes and Noble in a while. They barely discount at all. It is true that Amazon's search function is kind of a piece of shit, but if you can somehow manage to find what you want, you will pay considerably less for it than you would elsewhere. Of course, like you said, you'll pay a lot less than that at the library.

My issues with Amazon have more to do with their choice of delivery agent (UPS is fine, but if I see I have something coming DHL, I know it's time for worry) and their apparent inability to keep a lot of stuff in stock (or get it in stock promptly upon first publication). I don't feel like they owe me lower prices, because from my perspective, their prices are already pretty low. If I thought a price was appallingly high, I wouldn't pay it. They're not the only game in town. I feel like there should be something to what they're doing that offends me deeply, and if someone could tell me what that's supposed to be...?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2008


(Edit: Somehow I missed "everything BUT books and DVDs" the first time. So yeah, that's a different story, and Amazon's probably not the best outlet for a lot of other things.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:21 AM on April 15, 2008


Don't attribute to malice what is more readily explained by stupidity. Except perhaps stupidity by marketing people, which is a form of existential malice, I suppose. With that in mind, I'd like to offer some relatively benign explanation, like, say, Amazon has such a vast array of customers and such a vast array of products, blah blah blah, but I couldn't convince myself of it.

It's a database thing. Product and price should have a one-to-one relationship. Not a one-to-many relationship. If they can offer a product, they can or should offer a single price for it. Period.

Marketing people still look at the globe as a variety of markets. You have North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, etc. etc. plus an endless variety of demographics in each country. They want to extract the maximum amount of money from each customer, regardless of anything else. Prime member? Super-duper-valued-customer? Premium Member, Executive-Club? It's all baloney. They offer *nothing* that doesn't get them something in return.

On the other hand, a vendor could cut costs tremendously by *ignoring* the obvious value of internet marketing in determining who each customer is, and simply offer X product at Y value. Naturally, marketing people reject this idea out of hand, since their primary mark - er, client - is the vendor for whom they work. If they tell the vendor that for X dollars in expenditure they can secure X+N in returns, well then, the vendor figures, why not? It is the internet after all, and we can identify consumers in a way we never could before. And get more money.

Nevertheless, this idea will ultimately fail. You have a cost, C for your product. You can offer it at cost plus markup, C+M. You can offer this to every single person on the planet. You don't have to mess with marketing, demographics, or obfuscatory consumer/demographic analysis. Just offer the damn product. The only variable is shipping, and you can be up front about that. The internet is global, and it doesn't get much better.

Big pharmaceutical companies are fighting against this idea in the halls of each legislature in every country on the planet every single day. Go to Indonesia and buy medicine, like my friend does, who gets his meds for about 1% of what he would pay in the U.S. It's worth it for the price of the plane ticket alone.

While this isn't really news, it is kind of shocking to discover that your favorite retailer, who made their mark by offering the lowest prices anywhere, isn't really offering YOU the lowest prices. It's unfair, sure. Surprising, no.
posted by Xoebe at 10:25 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's hard to get too worked up over potential price discrimination abuse in this context, because consumers can so easily compare online prices.

If companies price discriminate online through cookies, it gets harder to accurately compare the prices though.
posted by drezdn at 10:26 AM on April 15, 2008


I'm reminded of a parable about an a man buying a painted pot from an American Indian selling art and wares by the roadside: [heavily paraphrased] The man had found a pot that was perfectly suited for his mantel. It was exactly what he was looking for, but it cost $100. After looking around for a bit, he found a very similarly decorated pot that only cost $10.

He asked the Indian what the difference was, and the seller responded: some people need a pot that costs $10, others are looking for one that costs $100.

The idea being, that for some people, the cost itself is part of the appeal of the purchase. To have a piece of art that was only worth $10 might not be as interesting as being able to say that it was worth $100.

Of course, to me, that is all bullshit. I want the stuff I buy to be had for as cheaply as possible. In fact, to me, that is part of the bragging rights: "Yeah, this watch? Normally it goes for about $100, I found it for $15. I just had to replace the band and wipe some blood off. But no big deal, it keeps great time."

If the disparity was greater, I would suggest that Amazon was trying to engage in this kind of activity; it cost's more so it must be more valuable, but with a difference of $12? It's either something else, or they are just trying to skim a little bit extra off the top.
posted by quin at 10:28 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


The airfare pricing conspiracy definitely doesn't have per-customer granularity. That's not to say it doesn't exist, but it's not targeting you specifically.

Generally speaking, the price of an airline ticket rises with time, since most folks are willing to pay more if they need to fly somewhere on short notice. But that seat "spoils" (its value drops immediately to zero) when they pull the plane back from the gate. So, roughly, the airlines want to sell the last seat (or, really, several percent past the last seat) just before the plane leaves. So they play a bunch of games trying to predict demand for a flight, and get it just (over) full.

Back in the day, when everybody called up a travel agent or an airline to buy tickets, there was a very clear line between reserving and ticketing a seat. You could make the reservation, and then wait some time, usually a day, before actually paying for it. In the interim, the seat was held, but hadn't actually been sold.

That still happens today, but it's a little less obvious on a website. I suspect the details vary a fair bit, but the basic idea is that searching for a flight doesn't reserve anything. It's only when you click the "more info" link for a particular flight that it gets reserved, and, among other things, the price from the search is checked. The reservation isn't held for a day, but it is held, and that affects both the number of seats theoretically occupied, and potentially the airline's demand forecast for the flight.

So, if all you're doing is perusing first-level search pages, not much is likely to change. But if you follow a bunch of the individual links, you'll tend to drive apparent demand up and availability down. Poorly implemented meta-search web scrapers are really bad about this.

Now, if a website were so inclined, they could use cookies to track that those were all you, and be less aggressive about holding the reservations, but there are some subtleties there, too. But the anonymous approach is nearly guaranteed to leave a bunch of orphaned reservations in the short term, and tend to drive the prices up.

Not, just to be clear, that I'm trying to advocate leaving a bunch of cookies around.

And, on preview, it's much worse than that. Each booking code tends to have many different fares associated with it. It really isn't beyond the realm of possibility that every group of passengers on a reasonably-sized plane paid a different fare.

It's all basically a giant mess.
posted by MadDog Bob at 10:32 AM on April 15, 2008


The main reason not to do this is that, eventually, the system will converge on price discrimination that prefers certain subclasses of society over others.

Certain protected subclasses.

So, yeah. Unless you want to build a system that can be mathematically proven to be racist and sexist in a court of law, you don't touch this technology with a ten foot pole.
posted by effugas at 10:33 AM on April 15, 2008


What about Amazon's prices on cookies? Are they competitive?
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:34 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Wall Street Journal reported on this within the past year as well. But that article also described that the incentives offered to customers (not just Amazon) were based upon a quite complex series of factors not limited to who/where you were located, but also based upon your browsing history, what other sites you click in/to, how often you purchase, how much you purchase, when you last purchased, and what other sites you visited before making your final purchase.

The BBC has also reported on Amazon's price discrimination system. Amazon is not alone in its use of cookies and other personally identifiable information to set varying prices.

It's airline ticket pricing for consumer goods. We're doomed.
posted by webhund at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2008


Price discrimination really gets my goat when Big Pharma gives cheap drugs to indigent seniors while making me pay full freight.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:40 AM on April 15, 2008


I'm just here for the sexy LiveJournal avatars. What's all this about books? So is that a Rhinocorn?

OMG FURRIES!
posted by Democritus at 10:41 AM on April 15, 2008


how can you not find what you want on amazon? what are you looking for that you can't find (assuming that it is a type of product that they sell)? i'm not snarking, i'm genuinely curious.

companies have been doing things like this for years, you know. things that i can buy back home in michigan for $X often cost $X+5-20% here in philadelphia. and likely cost something else even more outrageous in nyc.

plus, for a lot of items it's not necessarily amazon selling the item, but one of the sellers or marketplace people.

i dunno. almost everything that i buy from amazon is something that is more expensive at the store down the street from me. even if amazon is price gouging me, if they're cheaper than anywhere else, then, whatever. i'm going to keep buying from them.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:45 AM on April 15, 2008


>"I want to know how to get the lowest price, every time."

Sorry to break it to you, Mr. Mitty, but that's going to remain a daydream.
posted by Joe Invisible at 10:48 AM on April 15, 2008


Those comments in the LJ thread about how the $670 price is via an Amazon affiliate are mine, and I'm stickin' with them; this really does appear to be the author misunderstanding the search results and ascribing some sort of malice to Amazon when none exists.

To make sure to explain here: the author initially searched for his item on Amazon using a browser that wasn't logged into Amazon, and the search returns had his item for $670. It appears that this return was having the item sold to him via one of Amazon's affiliates, not Amazon itself. He then logged in, and found the item being sold to him for a higher price -- but from his own screenshots, this time Amazon was the one selling the item and fulfilling the order. So in the end, we have a case not of him finding Amazon selling an item for two different prices, but rather, of two different vendors selling an item for two different prices, both through the Amazon "storefront".

Note, then, that there's clearly still a problem -- Amazon needs to do a much better job of noting everywhere possible when an item is being fulfilled by Amazon itself or by an affiliate, and this is a great example of how they don't do that and how it bites them in the ass. But what this isn't is an example of Amazon practicing some sort of price targeting or discrimination -- there's no evidence to demonstrate that, and seems to be ample evidence otherwise.
posted by delfuego at 10:59 AM on April 15, 2008 [4 favorites]


You could try living in another country where the search results are exactly the same, but you can't buy at those prices. Instead, you have to pay hopped up prices from captive market vendors who laugh and laugh and laugh.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:02 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just came from buying something on Amazon, where "people who bought" (a disk enclosure) "also bought" (a photographic metering system that I've been looking at.) I don't like being lied to, when they could have just said "you might also be interested in..."
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:06 AM on April 15, 2008


I worked at a hot Internet startup back in 1997 or so. I remember the marketing guys having wet dreams about differentiated pricing based on all sorts of criteria and my thinking at the time that they were fucking out of their minds. Thank goodness it didn't catch on too much.
posted by tippiedog at 11:21 AM on April 15, 2008


Tinfoil found to effectively block cookies.
posted by Artw at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2008


delfuego: To make sure to explain here: the author initially searched for his item on Amazon using a browser that wasn't logged into Amazon, and the search returns had his item for $670. It appears that this return was having the item sold to him via one of Amazon's affiliates, not Amazon itself. He then logged in, and found the item being sold to him for a higher price -- but from his own screenshots, this time Amazon was the one selling the item and fulfilling the order. So in the end, we have a case not of him finding Amazon selling an item for two different prices, but rather, of two different vendors selling an item for two different prices, both through the Amazon "storefront".

I assume Amazon Prime only applies to items sold by Amazon itself, not other retailers that sell through its storefront? If so, then it makes sense that after he logged in, he saw Amazon products first or only. But yeah, not very clear to the consumer.
posted by tippiedog at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2008


What about Amazon's prices on cookies? Are they competitive?

I know this isn't what you were talking about, but these are the nummiest cookies on God's green earth.
posted by Prospero at 11:28 AM on April 15, 2008


Oh--that first line is a quote from Saxon Kane.
posted by Prospero at 11:28 AM on April 15, 2008


how can you not find what you want on amazon? what are you looking for that you can't find (assuming that it is a type of product that they sell)? i'm not snarking, i'm genuinely curious.

Recently I was looking for Leibniz' "Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain" in French and they seem to direct me to a third party selling it for $128. I went around the block and ordered a bilingual German-French edition from the local bookstore for 25 Euros...so I got the book plus a translation for one-fifth of the price. I don't think the book's that obscure -- the edition I got is from Suhrkamp, which is a major German publisher. And if the local bookstore could find it by looking in a computer, why couldn't Amazon?

Recently I was looking for one of those big yoga balls to sit on. Amazon offered me a whole bunch of options but none of them would deliver to Germany. Amazon knows that I live in Germany, so I'm not sure why they would do this if not just to annoy me. They should use cookies for that.
posted by creasy boy at 11:33 AM on April 15, 2008


Yeah, what is up with the avatars on that site? Is our beloved Ikkyu2 a furry? Not that there is anything wrong with that.
posted by LarryC at 11:41 AM on April 15, 2008


Recently I was looking for Leibniz' "Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain" in French and they seem to direct me to a third party selling it for $128. I went around the block and ordered a bilingual German-French edition from the local bookstore for 25 Euros

I can't give them any points for making it easy to find, but Amazon France has it for €9.31.

When they've got something, they've got it cheap.
posted by designbot at 11:44 AM on April 15, 2008


Amazon knows that I live in Germany, so I'm not sure why they would do this if not just to annoy me.

Amazon.com or amazon.de? I see a 20 euro copy on amazon.de.
posted by smackfu at 11:49 AM on April 15, 2008


I know this isn't what you were talking about, but these are the nummiest cookies on God's green earth.

Eww, no they are not.
posted by cashman at 12:02 PM on April 15, 2008


Price discrimination really gets my goat when Big Pharma gives cheap drugs to indigent seniors while making me pay full freight.

Which, interestingly enough, along with extending patent life on prescription drugs, was the work of Republicans and their lobbyists to undermine single-payer-like state and federal prescription drug programs, a program that was providing medication to indigent seniors at a lower price than before the Republicans came in and gave Big Pharma yet more corporate welfare. An interesting twist on eminent domain might be applied on state and local levels, if price gouging and collusion between corporations and federal government continues.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:05 PM on April 15, 2008


I know this isn't what you were talking about, but these are the nummiest cookies on God's green earth.

Eww, no they are not.


Try logging out and tasting them again.
posted by Artw at 12:05 PM on April 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


Tinfoil found to effectively block bake cookies.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:07 PM on April 15, 2008


Freelancers do this all the time.

The price you quote, say, Exxon Mobil for a piece of work is usually higher than the price you'd quote Bill-n-Ted's Excellent Gas Station for the same piece of work. To get the business from Bill-n-Ted, you have to be very competitive. Exxon Mobile gives it to you without blinking.

You charge more because the big buyer will pay it, the little guy might not, but you need the business from both.

The only thing Amazon has done is automate the data collection and price serving process.
posted by generichuman at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2008


It's probably worthwhile to quote the aforementioned comment, because if the issue it raises is true, that would give rise to doubts as to how much outrage is genuinely applicable to this situation:

The $670 price you're seeing isn't from Amazon, it's from one of the Amazon affiliate merchants (most likely Beach Camera, which has the $670 price). You can tell that that's the case in your screenshot because of the "In Stock" line -- that's the standard line for an affiliate that provides stock information to Amazon.

When you log in, you're getting the price from Amazon itself -- as in, the price when Amazon, not the affiliate, fulfills your order. You can tell that by the "Get it by Wednesday..." and the Prime icon.

I guess that when you're not logged in, Amazon shows you the very best price (without taking into account shipping or anything else) for your item, whether it's fulfilled by Amazon or by an affiliate. When you're logged in, though, Amazon looks to be showing you its own fulfillment price first.

In any event, this is a lot less nefarious than you're making it out to be -- but please let us know if you are able to test this again with this same item and the $670 price *IS* the Amazon-fulfilled price. I'm not a betting man, but I'd be willing to bet it isn't.


The Prime option only apply to what Amazon sells, not what third-parties sell through Amazon. That the pricing is any different would be up each reseller. Further, what is the Amazon price for a visitor who does not have a Prime subscription, compared with the third-party pricing? This isn't clear from the LiveJournal complaint. If anything, in this case, Amazon would be giving you more options to look for a low price.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:13 PM on April 15, 2008


I can't give them any points for making it easy to find, but Amazon France has it for €9.31.

Amazon.com or amazon.de? I see a 20 euro copy on amazon.de.


I just realized that I forget this trick every time. I figure Amazon is fucking Amazon -- it's an international service and they definitely know where I live. I've waited extra weeks and wasted hundreds of Euros over the years because I never remember this and just type the search terms into my firefox search-thingie.
posted by creasy boy at 12:14 PM on April 15, 2008


tippiedog's got it. There's nothing to see here; move along. If this guy wanted to get the item from Beach Camera for $270 while he was logged in, he could have; it just wasn't the top choice. Cookies have nothing to do with it.

Interestingly, though, the price of items do fluctuate from day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour. The price of item in question has dropped by $12.25 since yesterday, and even fell a little bit since this morning.

It's worth keeping an eye on the price even after you buy something, because if it drops in the first 30 days, Amazon will refund you the difference.
posted by designbot at 12:35 PM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm very positive that this was mentioned in "Freakonomics" or one of those pop-economic books and they said they stopped doing this years ago once people found out.

Assuming I'm not imagining that I read it, this is old news.
posted by champthom at 12:36 PM on April 15, 2008


If you add something to your cart, and don't checkout, Amazon will tell you if the price changed the next time you login. (Although if they were smart, they wouldn't tell you about drops.)
posted by smackfu at 12:44 PM on April 15, 2008


smackfu: "If you add something to your cart, and don't checkout, Amazon will tell you if the price changed the next time you login. (Although if they were smart, they wouldn't tell you about drops.)"

Yep, I use this feature all the time. You can also move things to Saved Items and still get price change notifications.
posted by aerotive at 12:51 PM on April 15, 2008


I'm very positive that this was mentioned in "Freakonomics" or one of those pop-economic books

The book Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres mentions it.
posted by drezdn at 12:53 PM on April 15, 2008


companies have been doing things like this for years, you know. things that i can buy back home in michigan for $X often cost $X+5-20% here in philadelphia. and likely cost something else even more outrageous in nyc.

That's kind of a different idea. Goods sell for various prices in different geographic areas because of transportation costs, local taxes, various overhead costs, among many other factors. There's probably some price discrimination based on the perceived market in various areas, but interstore competition prevents that from getting too out of hand.

That a book sells for more in Manhattan than it does in Morgantown, WV isn't really surprising; what I suspect people would grow irritated at in person would be if the price fluctuated based on the proprietor eying you up and deciding how flush with cash you look. Such things used to be a lot more common, and consumers have indicated through purchasing behaviors that they don't like it a whole lot. About the only goods you buy in a B&M establishment that change like that are cars, and there are some dealerships (e.g. Saturn) that have built their reputation specifically on not doing it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:02 PM on April 15, 2008


I swear that comment by delfuego said tippiedog when I cited it. It must have changed when I logged in.
posted by designbot at 1:11 PM on April 15, 2008


effugas: The main reason not to do this is that, eventually, the system will converge on price discrimination that prefers certain subclasses of society over others. (...) Certain protected subclasses. (...) So, yeah. Unless you want to build a system that can be mathematically proven to be racist and sexist in a court of law, you don't touch this technology with a ten foot pole.

Price discrimination, as others have pointed out, happens frequently and is nothing new. I would also venture that price discrimination more frequently harms--rather than helps--protected “subclasses”--especially minorities (aka "inner city poor"). The surcharge of being poor in America is a huge burden that nickels and dimes its way to a real and additional disparity for those often least able to bear it. From outrageous “payday loan” interest rates, to sky-high credit card APR, to “Rent To Own” furniture rackets where a particle-board dining set costs $4000 after you do the math, to Llame a Mexico phonecards that expire in 30 days and lose $2 value for each initial connection fee and other arbitrary incidentals explained on the back of the card in microscopic English for the convenience of Spanish speaking people who can't afford a telephone.

Is this fair? Of course not. Why does this happen? Because it can happen. Because the target market is a captive audience (e.g. elderly, disabled), can't read, doesn't have a phone, doesn't have a car, is afraid of being deported, etc. etc. etc. etc. ..Oh, and it also helps a bunch that these types of consumers are less likely to complain about these things to their congressman or on livejournal or metafilter like the rest of us special snowflakes who are so much less accustomed to being treated like shit.

Why is a quart of milk (and one quite likely marked to expire the day after tomorrow) selling for $3.45 at my corner liquor store (the one with the sticky floors inside and the panhandlers out front?) when I can get in the car and drive 5 blocks to a clean and modern supermarket where the milk is far cheaper, colder, fresher, and a courteous manager in a clip-on tie will apologetically remedy my complaints if it's not.

(And to be really petty here, why is the cost of dry cleaning my husbands sweater $2, when the cost of dry cleaning my sweater, at the same shop is $4.50. Because many women will pay it. This dry cleaner assumes (and apparently correctly, or the dry cleaner could not continue to do this) that women will pay the pointless surcharge because women are more interested in their clothes then men are in theirs. ...Or maybe its because their mothers reminded them as children that girls have to "suffer to be beautiful" or because James Brown said it's a Man's World, or Alice Cooper noted that only women bleed, or etc...)

In any case, the reasons don't really matter, and it's not fair to rich people, and it's not fair to poor people, and it works.

[Also, is it even possible for "Certain protected subclasses" to be protected and be "racist" or "sexist" at the same time? Because the constitutional amendments you are talking about were intended to help protect certain classes of people from historical power imbalances--and that goes way beyond simple prejudice--it would seem that the ability to be racist or sexist (in a constitutional sense) would negate one's membership the corresponding "protective subclass."]
posted by applemeat at 2:11 PM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


(And to be really petty here, why is the cost of dry cleaning my husbands sweater $2, when the cost of dry cleaning my sweater, at the same shop is $4.50. Because many women will pay it.
posted by applemeat at 5:11 PM on April 15


Same with haircuts. I once went into salon with my male partner - I had short hair and he had long luxurious locks. They wanted to charge him $12 and me $35 because "women have long hair and that takes longer."
posted by joannemerriam at 3:55 PM on April 15, 2008


Politically: what applemeat said, x100.

Tactically: easy way to stymie amazon.com, if deleting cookies isn't strong enough for ya, is probably to go via tor.
posted by paultopia at 9:29 PM on April 15, 2008


So just now I tried this out, loading up Amazon's bestselling-books page, then again going through privoxy and tor. The prices it gave me were the same, but the order of the books in the list was somewhat different. Did “Eat This Not That” have a sudden surge in popularity in the thirty seconds between fetches?

Going to audiovisual equipment, the prices of the things I checked were all the same, but it was harder to compare since Amazon gave me a fairly different interface. The privoxy+tor version didn't have any special deals, "today's featured selection"s, etc., advertised in the sidebars. But once I went to the list of DVD players and sorted based on bestselling-ness, I got the same models at the same prices.

So I'm guessing Amazon no longer does per-customer price discrimination— there was a backlash against them for that in 2005— but that they do have promos and page layouts that depend on your personal browsing history.
posted by hattifattener at 9:35 PM on April 15, 2008


Don't get me started on the guys selling trinkets in the street markets in Mexico. Those sheisters change their prices like I quonsar changes pantsfish.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:03 PM on April 15, 2008


I think I can count on one hand the times I've gone to Amazon and not found what I was looking for. And I've been on Amazon for a loooooong time. What am I missing?
posted by lhauser at 11:01 PM on April 15, 2008


Wow, is Amazon selling stuff again? I stopped going there years ago, when it turned into a virtual strip mall of tacky stores.
posted by troybob at 11:48 PM on April 15, 2008


It's hard to get too worked up over potential price discrimination abuse in this context, because consumers can so easily compare online prices.

But that's the beauty of price discrimination in this context! It only really targets the lazy. If you don't have 5 minutes of spare time to check whether we're ripping you off... well, that's gonna cost ya!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:15 AM on April 16, 2008


according to Chris Anderson, the perfect long tail is price differentiate. Highest price for most wanted person can bring much larger revenue for the company. Of course, as a customer, we feel bad about this.
posted by wonghonam at 8:05 AM on April 16, 2008


when we shop for airfare and not buy it immediately, then check it again, it goes up.

There's a pricing cycle. High very early, drops down, up, down, up. Sometimes a drop at the last second. Checkout Farecast.com, which analyzes prices and predicts whether they will go up or down. I've had good luck with this service.
posted by msalt at 2:35 PM on April 16, 2008


I just realized that I forget this trick every time. I figure Amazon is fucking Amazon -- it's an international service and they definitely know where I live. I've waited extra weeks and wasted hundreds of Euros over the years because I never remember this and just type the search terms into my firefox search-thingie.

And on other occasions amazon.de will have higher prices, even though both .com and .de will ship the products from warehouses in Germany.
posted by ersatz at 5:55 PM on April 16, 2008


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