Value fluctuations on e-commerce websites make us lose our sense of worth

In the United States, Amazon produces toy catalogs that it distributes a few months before Christmas, as do some major retailers in France. This is where the thinking of Daisuke Wakabayashi, a New York Times reporter, begins: how to explain that prices are the main ones absent from this catalog?

This is clearly not an inadvertent oversight: the products described in the catalog do not actually have a fixed price. The article describes this strangeness as a natural consequence of two decades of online shopping.

Gone are the days when e-commerce was sold to us as a guarantee of transparency that should ensure that we can find the best price for each item. Because in the end the opposite happens: people who used to shop online have eventually lost all sense of reality and no longer have a clue about the value of things.

The abundance of articles on sites like Amazon contributes to this ambiguity: it is becoming increasingly difficult to know at what price we really need to pay for non-cultural goods.

It has to be said that the site founded by Jeff Bezos set the bar very high in terms of smoke: algorithms have indeed been developed to change the prices in question. Sometimes impressive.

A New York Times article takes the example of a package of paper towels. In February 2021, it cost around 26 and 70 euros. In April, the price dropped to around 20.5 euros, only to rise again until it reached 31.2 euros in October. According to the latest news, this same item now costs 25 euros.

Algorithmic blurring

In 2018, Glenn Ellison and Sarah Fisher Ellison, professors of economics, wrote an article announcing this phenomenon: as technology made it easier to find the best price, retailers had to find a solution that consisted of “opaque” consciously priced.

“As a result, consumers pay more for every thing,” explains Glenn Ellison, who adds that it is a balance sheet for clients “Almost exclusively negative”.

If it is possible to follow the evolution of the price of an item sold by Amazon, it is thanks to a page dedicated to this topic, Camelcamelcamel, which also offers extensions to install on its Internet browser.

We learn, for example, that between August 2021 and February 2022, the price of a particular package of Pokémon cards changed fourteen times, or more than twice a month. With impressive variations, as the price ranged between 45.6 and 80.3 euros, averaging 59.9 euros for six months.

What is the fair price of these items that are mostly ordered online? It seems that no one can determine that anymore. Unlike a liter of fuel, a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread, which we buy in person at physical stores, these material goods have eventually lost all materiality.

Speaking of “fair price”, the New York Times cites the example of one of the biggest winners in the American version of the game show, Michael Stouber, who in 2019 took a six-figure sum in his pocket.

He tells the following anecdote: last year, after seeing that the price of plumbing equipment he bought on Amazon fell sharply in a month, he asked for a refund of the difference, which he was denied.

As he has not used the mentioned equipment yet, he decided to return it and ask for a refund, and then he repeated the purchase, this time using the lowest price. Achieved savings: 71 euros.

Will this really have to happen for users of the online sales giant? “It simply came to our notice then. sums up Michael Stouber. Just a game. “ A catastrophic game for ecology, in which shopping and trade eventually became one.

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