It may come as a surprise that, in buying a seasonal pie ingredient, you might be participating in a carefully designed social-science experiment. But this is what online comparison shopping hath wrought. Simply put: Our ability to know the price of anything, anytime, anywhere, has given us, the consumers, so much power that retailers—in a desperate effort to regain the upper hand, or at least avoid extinction—are now staring back through the screen. They are comparison shopping us.
“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. “Many moons ago, there used to be one price for something,” Dolan notes. Now the simplest of questions—what’s the true price of pumpkin-pie spice?—is subject to a Heisenberg level of uncertainty.
Which raises a bigger question: Could the internet, whose transparency was supposed to empower consumers, be doing the opposite?