There is nothing new about customers comparing products and prices between neighbouring shops, and merchants selling similar goods can often be found in close proximity in order to attract more customers. (This is especially true for specialist and occasional purchases: in large cities, whole streets or districts may be associated with specific types of shop. London has Denmark Street for musical instruments, Hatton Garden for jewellery, Saville Row for made-to-measure suits, and so on.)
And as Tim Harford points out, exploitative algorithms are using tricks as old as haggling at the bazaar.
But nowadays the villain, apparently, is eCommerce. As a significant share of the retail business migrates from the high street to the Internet, many retailers are concerned about so-called showrooming. It may seem unfair that a customer can spend loads of time in the high street, wasting the time of the shop assistants and shop-soiling the goods, before purchasing the same goods online at a better price. To add insult to injury, some people not only practice showrooming, but then blog about how guilty it makes them feel.
There is a common belief that the Internet can generally undercut the High Street, and there are several reasons why this belief seems to make sense.
- Internet businesses compete on price rather than service, so the prices must be good.
- An internet store can provide economies of scale - serving the whole country or region from a single warehouse, instead of needing an outlet in each town.
- An internet store can offer a much larger range of goods without increasing the cost of inventory - the so-called Long Tail phenomenon
- An internet store typically has lower overheads - cheaper premises and fewer staff
- An internet business may be run as a start-up, with less
dead wood. So it is more agile and less bureaucratic.
- The economic and logistical costs of delivery and return can be significant, especially for low-ticket items. With clothing in particular, customers may order the same item in three different sizes, and then return the ones that don't fit.
- Investors previously poured money into internet businesses, and the early strategic focus was on growth rather than profit. As internet business become more mature, investors will be looking to see some decent returns on their investment, and margins will be pushed up.
- And then there is differential pricing ...
I heard Ariel Ezrachi talking about this phenomenon at the PowerSwitch conference in Cambridge a few weeks ago. (I have not yet read his new book.)The price of the headphones Google recommends may depend on how budget-conscious your web history shows you to be.
There is an assumption is that the internet is a blessing when it comes to competition. Endless choice. Ability to reduce costs to close to zero. etc ... What you see online has very little to do with the ideas we have of market power, market dynamics, etc. everything is artificial. It looks like a regular market, with apples or fish. But because it’s all monitored, it’s not like that at all. What you see online is not a reflection of the market. You see(via Laura James's liveblog)the Truman Show— a reality designed just for you, a controlled ecosystem.
In his play Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde offered the following contrast between the cynic and the sentimentalist.
Lord Darlington: What cynics you fellows are!
Cecil Graham: What is a cynic?
Lord Darlington: A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.
According to one of the participants at the PowerSwitch conference, some eCommerce sites quote higher prices for Apple users, based on the idea that they are less price-sensitive and can afford to pay more. In other words, the cynical Internet regards Apple users as sentimentalists.
If there is an alternative to this calculative thinking, it comes down to reestablishing trust. Perhaps then retailers and consumers alike can avoid an artificial choice between cynicism and sentimentalism.
Update (2020) added a link to a new paper by Frederik Borgesius, which looks at some of the legal as well as ethical implications of differential pricing.
Emma Brockes, I found something I like in a store. Is it wrong to buy it online for less? (Guardian, 3 May 2017)
Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, Price Discrimination, Algorithmic Decision-making, and European Non-discrimination Law (European Business Law Review
Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy (Harvard University Press, 2016) - more links via publisher's page
Tim Harford, Exploitative algorithms are using tricks as old as haggling at the bazaar (Financial Times, 5 October 2018)
Laura James, Power Switch - Conference Report (31 March 2017). Further links including video via Power Switch Conference (March 2017)
Joshua Kopstein, Is Amazon Price-Gouging You? (Vocativ, 4 May 2017) via @charlesarthur
Jerry Useem, How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All (Atlantic, May 2017)
Price-bots can collude against consumers (Economist, 6 May 2017)
The Dilemma of Showrooming, (Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, University of New Mexico)
Related posts: Online pricing practices to be regulated? (October 2009), Predictive Showrooming (December 2012), Showrooming and Multi-Sided Markets (December 2012), Showrooming in the Knowledge Economy (December 2012), Power Switch Conference (March 2017), The Idea of Showrooming (July 2017), Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism (February 2019)
Updated 11 July 2020