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Online Retailers' Tricks: How Students Can Avoid Them

Do you ever feel like you're being watched whilst you shop? Maybe your toaster packed up last week, and then out of the blue, an ad with the perfect toaster suddenly appears at 25% off.

If it's any reassurance, chances are you are being watched! Or at least your browser history is.

When shopping online, it's often assumed that all consumers are being offered the same product for the same price, right? This, however, is not always the case.

Online retailers have the ability to change product prices and offers based on things like your location, browser history and operating system.

In fact, it's common for big e-commerce retailers to display different offers and items according to a range of factors that can be discovered about you, the user.

'Dynamic pricing' (or price discrimination) is the practice of adjusting the price of a product or service to reflect changing market conditions.

Essentially, it is charging higher prices at a time of greater demand.

For example, some retailers use customers' location and browsing history to vary the offers made available to a certain user: if you live in an area with a higher average income, you might see higher prices as compared to someone who resides in an area with a lower average income.

The operating system you use also plays a role in what pops up on your screen – some websites have been accused of charging more to those who shop using an Apple Mac, as Mac users typically have a higher average household income.

Craig Larkin – founder of new online shopping website kerchingandwin.co.uk, where you can win prizes with your purchases, has compiled some tips and tricks to help you avoid dynamic pricing:

1. Change your IP address (or type in different postscodes)

Retailers are able to spy your location using two methods: either you type in your postcode, or they obtain it using your IP address.

If you live in a higher income area, try typing in a nearby postcode where you know the income level is lower.

A slightly more complex method is to mask your IP address by setting up a VPN or proxy server.

This doesn't guarantee you'll emerge with a better deal but at least you'll be aware if the sites you frequent are guilty of price discrimination.

2. Browse using incognito mode or disable third-party cookies

By having a look through your browser cookies, retailers are able to effectively track your spending habits.

Try shopping in your browser's incognito or private mode or block third-party cookies. It may also be worth it to browse using one browser and make purchases on another if you're particularly worried about dynamic pricing.

3. Check prices using a different device

Many sites offer different prices depending on whether you're browsing on a Mac, Windows or mobile device such as an Android or iPhone.

If you have another on hand, double check product prices on an alternate device.

4. Change your user agent

By changing your user agent, you can trick a webpage into thinking you're using a different device or operating system.

For example, if you have a Mac, you can see if you can get a better deal by pretending you're ordering from a Windows system or mobile device. 

5. Check other retailers

This one is relatively obvious but if you think you're being conned by dynamic pricing, simply shop a different website.

There are also a number of browser extensions you can download, which alert you when products or services are cheaper elsewhere to ensure you don't miss out on deals and special product prices.

By following these top tips, you can avoid overspending on your online purchases while studying at university, and save more of that precious student loan!