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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.