Thursday, July 05, 2012

What’s in your wallet? No. Wait. I’ll just figure it out for myself.

In my next life, I’m coming back as a Luddite.

Oh, wait.

I already am one.

Don’t let this blogging stuff fool you, I’m rapidly getting to the point where I believe that 80-90% of whatever’s hip and happenin’ on the Internet is sheer and utterly useless nonsense, and 80-90% of that is actually going to be hazardous to our – you name it – mental, physical, social, political, intellectual, and financial health.

The latest bit of technology that’s riled me up is not the usual social-whirl folderol. It’s something more insidious: price customization software that let’s an online retailer game how much you’re willing to pay based on factors like OS and zip code. (Mac users are assumed to be less price sensitive. Folks in certain zip codes are known to be wealthier than those in other zips. So, while I’m a low-rent Windows kind of gal, I do live in the sort of ‘hood that might just tempt an online retailer to gouge.  )

Not that selective pricing strategies are anything new.

Anyone who’s been to an outdoor market of any kind – farmers’, antique, flea – understands that prices are negotiable and, no doubt, farmers, antique dealers, and fleas are all quite adept at sizing up just how deep the desire and pockets are of the person they’re negotiating with.

Anyone who’s worked in enterprise software knows just how squishy pricing can be, with everything subject to negotiation. As with snowflakes, no two customers ever ending up paying the same price for pretty much the same thing.


In a 2006 study of Fulton fish market in New York, Kathryn Graddy of Oxford University found that dealers regularly charged Asian buyers less than whites because the Asians had proved, over time, more willing to reject high prices, and readier to band together to boycott dealers who ripped them off. (Source: The Economist.)

Yet it somehow doesn’t seem sporting that online, where we hear so much about the vaunted transparency that will race all those prices to the bottom so that we all get to pay next to nothing for something, the retailers will be plotting and scheming to charge us more than they charge the next guy.

Not surprisingly, most online retailers are a tad reluctant to draw attention to whether they practice this practice.

Orbitz uses it.

Its software detects whether people browsing its site are using an Apple Mac or a Windows PC and, since it has found that Mac users tend to choose pricier hotels, that is what it recommends to them. Orbitz stresses that it does not charge people different rates for the same rooms, but some online firms are believed to be doing just that, for instance by charging full whack for those assumed to be willing and able to pay it, while offering promotional prices to the rest.

What’s the difference between this and having the “want fries with that?” kid at McDonald’s suss you out and decide that you can afford to pay full price for a Big Mac, while the down-at-his-heels guy in back of you gets handed a coupon for half-off.

I don’t know about you, but I would feel plenty aggrieved. While also feeling insulted if the “want fries with that?” kid didn’t recognize that I was carrying a real Longchamps bag, and insultingly, offered to have me pay less than the hoitier-toitier bee-yotch in line before me.)

Or is the world just coming full circle here, and radical capitalism has gone around the bend and met radical communism? (From each according to his ability (to pay), to each according to his means.)

Of course, just because an online retailer is data mining to “personalize” the shopping experience for you doesn’t mean that the personalization includes figuring out who can afford a bit more. (Side note to data miners. I have carpal tunnel syndrome. Before being diagnosed by my doctor, I spent a bit of time roaming the web – no doubt contributing to my carpal tunnel problems – and one of the things I searched on was “neuropathy.” But puh-leeze. I’m wearing a splint at night, my symptoms are diminishing, and I no longer want to see some link to a neuropathy site appear every time I turn a web page. Enough is enough.)

Still, it all seems rather unfair.

Not to mention making me really wary about whether a retailer is playing this game.

But whether they’re price-fixing or not, retailers are going in big for “personalization”.

RichRelevance – how’s that for a name – is one of the outfits in the personalized shopping/price customization biz:

Over 350 million times per day, RichRelevance is powering the personalized shopping experiences for consumers shopping the world’s largest and most innovative retail brands like Walmart, Sears, Target, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis…. RichRelevance helps retailers increase sales and customer engagement by recommending the most relevant products to consumers regardless of the channel they are shopping.

Ah, customer engagement.

Personally, personalizationally, if I want to be engaged as a customer I’ll go to a store or call the 800 number.

What I like about shopping online is that it’s not engaging.  It’s a cut and dried, you-got-it-I-want-it transaction. No small talk required. Leave me (and my neuropathy) the hell alone.

But I am, of course, both a latter day Luddite and a member of a demographic that no one except the AARP cares about, anyway.

RichRelevance has delivered more than $5 Billion in attributable sales for its retail clients to date, and is accelerating these results with the introduction of a new form of digital advertising called Shopping Media which allows manufacturers to engage consumers where it matters most—in the digital aisles on the largest retail sites in world.

I’m sure that they’ll be on the lookout for me – the crazed Luddite running amok in the digital aisles, trying to knock a personalizer over with my virtual shopping cart.

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