Pricing, fluctuation and discrimination: consumers strike back!

As the summer travel season approaches, I’ve seen a lot of posts that advise consumers on how to find the lowest prices. The initial advice is straightforward: start with the price comparison sites such as Kayak. Then the advice sounds more like superstition and rumors than science: delete all cookies, make sure you browse incognito as prices go up as you hesitate, prices for users on Apple products are higher, prices for users on mobile are higher, and so on. A recent Huffington Post article had this advice to give: “Close out all your windows and both your browsers, now reopen them, and clear your cookies, twice. Yes, twice… If it says you still have cookies, you can go into “Details” and manually remove them.” Then there’s the somewhat vague advice that booking on Tuesday leads to lower prices.

If it’s OK by you, I’ll just light some incense around my laptop on a full moon and try booking travel then.

My reasoning that since the travel companies have so much more knowledge at their disposal, from how busy a hotel is on a certain date or how full a flight is, they will always have the upper hand when setting a price.

Which is why I was blown away by Google Now’s new service, a travel price alert. (Note: this could be beyond travel but right now it is all I have seen.) After making a reservation a few weeks ago for a hotel in the Boston area with my Google email, Google kindly added that reservation to my calendar. Then, yesterday, Google Now notified me that the same hotel was available for the same date at a lower price. The card conveniently linked to the hotel and to the cancellation policy. Now, I wish I had captured the card to add to this post but after I followed the link, the card disappeared.

Fenway Park, c1914. Just an example. Source: Wikipedia, part of George Grantham Bain Collection.

Fenway Park, 1914. Just a theoretical example.
Source: Wikipedia, part of the George Grantham Bain Collection.

[Allow me to digress a moment. This randomness is part of a bigger beef I have with Google Now: cards are created on the fly and are impossible to generate on one’s own and they come and go as they please. For example, once Google decides that a user supports a sports team, that user will continue getting upcoming games and scores for that team. That’s great if the user really likes the team but awkward if Google decided that the user likes the Red Sox simply because said user bought a ticket to see Fenway Park.]

The end result was that I could book the hotel for $17 less than the price I originally booked it for. Had I chosen a better cancellation policy, I would have been able to rebook my stay for less.

What I like about this new Google Now service is that it is automating a task that users would find very hard to do on their own. Unlike checking a baseball score, it’s unlikely that users will continue trying to check prices for a hotel that they have already booked. By automating the price check and notifying the user only when it becomes relevant, Google is somewhat evening out the playing field. I wouldn’t say it’s level quite yet, but certainly this puts a powerful weapon in consumer’s pocket.

Another product, Paribus, launched at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, also tries to automate a difficult yet often profitable process for users: price adjustment refunds in retail. Many stores will offer refunds of the price difference if a price of a product is reduced within a set period of time after the customer has bought it. Naturally, the onus is on the customer to track the price and submit a request for a refund if applicable. Paribus automates the entire process for users. All they need is access to the email account where all shopping receipts end up and 25% of any refunds it obtains. In return it will scan those receipts for products bought and apply for a refund if prices go down. Since any money is better than none, it’s a win-win for everyone except the retailer. It’s another way to put some power back in the hands of consumers with products working for them and do a bit more to level the playing field.

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