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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.