Price you pay may depend on cyber shopping device

St. Mary's University professors say beware price customization, risky returns

SAN ANTONIO – As millions of online shoppers browse the Internet to score some holiday deals, some may be paying different prices than others for the same item.

It's a practice known as price customization.   

How much a consumer pays may very well depend on which computer, tablet or smartphone he or she is using, said Ramona Lampley, assistant professor at St. Mary's University School of Law.

"Essentially what they (retailers) are doing is capturing what we might call a click history," she said. "They are using that information transmitted through cookies to input a formula that might tell your preferences and your willingness to pay a larger price."

Lampley cited a study done by a Northeastern University. The research team had analyzed 16 retail and travel websites and found examples of price customization or price steering. 

Shoppers may also be shown different product options or listings in different orders, Lampley said, adding that the practice is legal.

What can consumers do about it?

Lampley suggested setting up a private browser, comparing prices using different browsers and comparing prices on your computer and mobile devices. 

Before clicking the "buy" button, be sure to read the return policy, warned St. Mary's University School of Law Professor Colin Marks.

"If the return policy is limited to 30 days, and you're buying it as a Christmas gift, that gives you a real short window to get it back if there's a defect," Marks said. 

The potential problem for consumers, he said, is in the fine print of the terms and conditions of many major retailers. When you buy a product in a store, there is an implied warranty that the product is marketable. However, the fine print states that when sold online the same product is sold "as is."

"Now what they can say after the return period, is ‘Go take it up with the manufacturer,'" Marks said. "And if you've ever had to do that, that can be a real pain."

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