Skip to main content


It’s pretty darn hard to determine, but you may want to read this as food for thought on which device you use most frequently for your online purchases–especially with the upcoming holiday season fast approaching.

In April and May of this year, researchers at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity in Boston studied the search results of 300 people who visited 16 online retailers and travel agencies. On nine of those sites, they found that customers were shown different prices or different results for the same searches. The researchers said such differences — which they called “price discrimination” or “price steering” — are based on data collected about consumers and can be hard for online shoppers to detect.

One  of the examples in the study said that online travel company, Expedia,  displayed pricier hotels to users based on the browsing history stored on their computers– which are called “cookies,”– though researchers could not determine what sort of browsing activity triggered the higher prices.

The study was an attempt to show consumers that many e-commerce sites show different online deals based on your browsing history and other data collection. Many businesses use this strategy to boost sales–especially around the Christmas holiday.

I bet that bit of news just put a Scrooge-like look on your face, didn’t it?

This is not new information, either. It apparently has been going on for a number of years. In 2012, Staples displayed different prices to people based on their locations. Another company, Orbitz, showed different hotel offers to Mac and PC users after they learned that Mac users spent more on hotels (wow–that’s really digging in the data collection, isn’t it)? Orbitz informed Northeastern researchers that it doesn’t use this method any longer, because it was only considered an “experiment.”

Online Price Discimination

If you didn’t think you were guinea pigs up until about thirty seconds ago, you may think you are one now. If your kid wants a guinea pig for Christmas, you can wrap yourself up and put a bow on top of your head.

Side Note: Don’t buy animals online; it’s just wrong.

As you can see, the variables for price discrimination differ based on the company who uses this practice. Location, type of computer system  you are on, what type of device you are using, and what different websites you have frequented in the past can show companies how to target the appropriate price range for the same item to consumers who want to purchase it.

What You Can Do

There are a few ways to avoid price discrimination for online shoppers. You can search on a desktop browser, use private session searching, or use a mobile device. I would also consider deleting your web history and clearing your cookies on your computer system so it becomes difficult for businesses to determine where you were visiting online in the past.

I know we all love to eat cookies, but try to make it a regular practice to clear them out weekly.

Save the cookies for Santa.

By the way, there is also another way to you save yourself a higher price and have some yuletide cheer at the same time–go to the mall. I know, what a concept, right? Get in your car, drive in traffic, spend about thirty minutes attempting to find a parking spot, which by the way, is about a mile away from the mall entrance, and then have a strategy on attacking the stores without losing your temper, raising your blood pressure, or sweating because you didn’t have the sense to realize you’d be walking–or running–with a winter coat on through a mall alongside thousands of other people.

On second thought, maybe shopping in the comfort of my own home may be better.