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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.