The future is personalised pricing

But this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

On a recent trip to Kenya I found that the amount you get charged for a bus ride depends mostly on how badly you look like you need one. The longer it you've been waiting, the more bags you have, the more irritated the look on your face, the more you'll end up paying.

This is not a great system for commuters, but is one that seems to be  coming in to force online. The Office of Fair Trading is currently looking in to personalised pricing - where retailers use information they've gathered about customers to decide how much to charge them. The information is collected either from previous purchases on the site or bought through a third party - retailers then potentially charging some people higher prices.

Particular worries have been raised about flights and hotel rates. There have been allegations that companies look at your computer brand or area (indications of wealth) to help them decide on hotel price, and that flight prices are changed depending what on other sites you have been looking at. This is very annoying, expecially for customers whose activity indicates that they are a) rich or b) badly need the service.

But as the FT points out, a system of fixed pricing isn't inevitable. It makes sense for retailers to try and squeeze all they can out of each customer, and fixed pricing only came in to fashion for practical reasons - high volumes making it impossible to keep track of individual buyers. But technology is changing this, allowing prices to splinter. Here's FT Alphaville:

We can find ourselves in a situation where we have inflation and deflation simultaneously across society. And not on a product level, but on a demographic level.

In fact it’s not too crazy to imagine an environment where prices get higher quickly for the 1 per cent, but lower for the 99 per cent. The 1 per cent are, after all, already prepared to pay over the pure cost price in many areas. Of course, the situation could be inverted as well.

The results of the change could be huge, but perhaps the Office of Fair Trading should stay out of it. Kenyan bus drivers use personalised pricing because it maximises profits and because they can. It makes a certain amount of sense for other businesses to start doing the same.
For you: best price. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.