Algorithm is a dancer

By Dan Brough, Head of Copy
28/02/2019

Have you ever viewed a train ticket or flight several times and when you’ve gone back to book, the price has jumped? Don’t know about you but it’s left me raging against the machine.

Recently, my husband and I were looking at holiday cottages for the Easter break. Between us, we probably looked at one three or four times before we decided to go ahead and book. Surprise, surprise, in less than 24 hours, the price had shot up. However, when I logged onto another computer, would you believe, the price was back to the lower price.

So what’s the deal? It’s called dynamic pricing and it’s playing us big style.

Huge quantities of data are giving businesses more insights than ever before into customer desires. Years ago, before computers, market traders would barter and change their prices according to supply and demand. On a bad day, they’d lower the price. Or, if they knew a customer would pay over the odds, they’d increase it.

And now it’s back, thanks to algorithmic support.

Prices on most sites are static – they won’t change regardless of how often you check them. But then there are those who are taking full advantage of dynamic pricing. This means different customers being offered different prices at different times as a super smart computer system tries its hardest to make sure a sale goes through. In some cases, it uses our postcode, time of day, the current level of demand and whether a product has already been researched, which of course, indicates interest. Whether it is good or bad for shoppers, we’re going to see more and more dynamic pricing. There’s even talk of the technology entering the world of vending machines – a drinks manufacturer is rumoured to have plans to dynamically alter their cold drinks pricing depending on the temperature.

Here’s some top tips on how to beat tech at its own game:

  • Clear your cookies. This only has to be done on a specific browser – not for your whole system.
  • Check to see if you’re being specifically priced up. Check prices on a new device – return to a website as an unlogged in user, or use an ‘incognito window’ in Chrome.
  • There are special browsers made for the exact purpose of providing privacy, security and anonymity. Take a look at torproject.org. VPNs also obscure your traffic to a level that your service provider (BT, Sky and so on) can’t view what you’re looking at – Read about the confusing world of VPNs.
  • A clever hack to get around this on a more permanent basis is to use two separate browsers for different purposes. For example, do all your browsing on Safari and then buy using Chrome. This muddies the water and makes it more difficult to track you.
  • Disable third party cookies on a permanent basis which will mean retailers won’t be able to track your activity. If you follow EU cookie policy law, sometimes it’ll allow you to disable cookies in a website’s cookie banners.
  • Consider an adblocker, such as uBlock Origin and block ads before they get a chance to touch your browser.
  • Remember, the more you search something repeatedly, the more the price increases.

On the flip side, if you leave a site after getting to a certain point at checkout (after inputting your email of course), re-engagement tactics for basket dropouts mean you may get sent discount codes to tempt you back. Now that I do like.

For now though, algorithms are here to stay. As the underlying maths becomes more advanced and our computers become more powerful, their influence on our lives – from setting insurance premiums to controlling airports – will be inescapable. Interesting times don’t you think?

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