Online Retailers Know What We Want and How Much We’re Willing to Pay for It

“Sale price” may be determined on an individual basis.

Photo credit: Robbert Noordzij, CC BY 2.0.

So you know how yesterday I wrote that I reconfigured my budget and then immediately bought shoes?

I didn’t buy the shoes because I was that desperate for immediate gratification. (Although I am throwing my current pair into the garbage as soon as my new shoes arrive.)

I bought them because I wanted to take advantage of a 30 percent off sale.

If I recall correctly, I saw the sale in a sidebar ad. (I checked my email and couldn’t find one announcing it, so it must have been the sidebar.) I would have clicked through the sidebar, bought the everyday walking shoes I wanted for $34.99 (original price $49.99), added a pair of sandals in Millennial pink because they were only $19.99 (original price $27.99), and checked out.

I just checked that retailer’s website in both my regular browser and an incognito browser. That same pair of sandals is now on sale for $27.99, with the original price listed as $39.99. The walking shoes show the same original price, $49.99, but are no longer on sale.

I may be using the term “original price” loosely. I’m just referring to the price the website has crossed out, the one right above the price they’re offering. They never claim it is the original price. They just claim it is the price they are no longer charging.

Which brings me to this amazing longread from The Atlantic:

How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All

“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.

The whole article is fascinating, but the TL;DR is that the price we see on our screens comprises a bunch of background data that might have been sucked out of our online history (nobody’s really coming out and saying that) and is definitely based on retailers trying to find the optimum number at which we’ll make the purchase and they’ll make the most profit.

I wasn’t planning to buy sandals, but I knew that I needed to keep my eye out for a good pair of pink summer shoes to match some of the pink summer outfits I’d bought over the past year, and the price was right.

I wonder how much of that was specifically calculated to get my attention.

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