Companies charging customers based on their web behaviour

READ MORE: It’s a common practice that’s neither illegal nor immoral according to technology experts. Peter Kim reports.

TORONTO – What you browse online and where you browse from may determine how much you pay for goods and services according to a study from Northeastern University in Boston.

Travel companies were the most likely to engage in price discrimination and price steering according to researchers.

“We looked at six different travel websites: Orbitz, CheapTickets,, Expedia, Priceline, and Travelocity. And we looked at ten general purpose retailers like Walmart, Home Depot, Sears, and Macy’s,” said study author Christo Wilson.

“We were trying to figure out whether they were changing prices for individual people or steering people to more expensive items – so the prices aren’t changing, they’re just showing you different stuff,” he said. Both turned out to be true.

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Disparities in prices ranged from “hundreds of dollars per day” to 50 cents according to Wilson. There were even variations found on the websites of general retailers like Home Depot, which charged Android users 50 cents more than other customers according to the research.

Companies also targeted their marketing using a practice known as price steering.

“For example, on Expedia when you show up to the site, they’re actually conducting experiments on all their users. As soon as you show up, they’re going to decide if you’re in the high price bucket or cheap bucket. And when they show you the results they re-order the results depending on which group you’ve been placed in,” said Wilson.

Customers thought to have higher incomes may see expensive items more prominently displayed.

There are several factors influencing both practices: the device customers browse from (smartphone, PC), their location (urban, rural), and search and purchase histories help online retailers sketch a spending portrait of the user that informs how they will be marketed to.

For those uncomfortable with sharing this information, disabling cookies – small pieces of information a website places on your computer when you land on it – can help mask your tracks online.

The practices are neither wrong nor illegal says technology analyst Carmi Levy. “Companies have been doing it for a long time, even before the Internet,” and shoppers can find bargains because of them.

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“Change devices, use a laptop or desktop computer instead of a mobile device. Don’t log in from your office downtown because they’ll think that you have more money than you do,” said Levy.

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