Shoppers can be reasonably confident that the price of a box of their favorite cereal will not budge in the time it takes to push a cart down a supermarket aisle. But that may change as stores begin to experiment with the kind of minute-by-minute price adjustments made online.
More web retailers are using software that fluctuates prices throughout the day in order to draw shoppers’ attention and better manage inventory, according to The Wall Street Journal. By its count, Amazon.com changed the price of one General Electric microwave nine times in 24 hours, pricing it as high as $871.49 and as low as $744.46.
That kind of price control may be impossible in a physical store without arming legions of employees with price guns, but experts say that to combat “showrooming” (where shoppers visit stores but buy the goods online) — and just to keep up — the tactics are being rolled out on a limited scale. The most common iteration is the Black-Friday-style door-buster deals, in which the first 100 or so shoppers get a product at a steep discount. Other stores use a round of advertised sales that last just an hour or two during the day, says James Bieri, principal at Stokas Bieri Real Estate, a Detroit-based retail consulting firm. The Journal found that Best Buy often followed Amazon in adjusting its online pricing. (Best Buy did not respond to requests for comment on whether that strategy might extend to its physical stores.) But these daily changes are often limited to one or two shifts at most and to just a few items, since store associates must switch out all the sale signage, he says. For now, anyway.
More retailers are experimenting with brand-focused stores within stores, which could make it easier to offer sales on select groupings, Bieri says. Kohl’s has also been rolling out digital price tags, which can be changed with a few clicks on the computer, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org. (Kohl’s did not respond to requests for comment.) Even with high-tech signage, price changes are likely to be limited, so that shoppers won’t be discouraged from sticking around and browsing. “It defeats their purpose if you have to pick up those jeans and run to the checkout,” Bieri says.
Although dynamic pricing could let savvy shoppers snag a better deal with the right timing, advocates have concerns, too. “It would be so easy for a store to change prices the day welfare checks come in, or if there’s a storm coming, mark up prices on bread and milk and batteries,” says Dworsky. Fast-changing prices would also make it easier for retailers to fudge an item’s real retail price, he says — a $100 sweater for $50 isn’t really a 50% off sale when it was priced at $100 for just a few hours, and has been $70 ever since.