It may be time to update your view of the "unbiased, impersonal" Internet, reports the Wall Street Journal. It today shares the results of an investigation into online shopping that found that one price doesn't necessarily fit all. A number of websites— including those of Staples, Home Depot, and Rosetta Stone—display different prices to shoppers based on their location. And we're not necessarily talking about a difference between California and Virginia buyers. In the case of a Swingline stapler sold at Staples.com, two shoppers living just a few miles away saw two different prices: $14.29 and $15.79.
The Journal's investigation determined that that website appears to calculate the shopper's distance from a rival's actual store; if one is within about 20 miles, said shopper was shown a lower price. One of those rivals, Office Depot, told the paper that it too adjusts its offers based on "customers' browsing history and geolocation." As long as things like race-based discrimination don't come into play, these practices aren't illegal. In fact, several companies noted that they reflect the shopping experience at brick-and-mortar stores, where prices are tweaked based on inventory and competition. Still, the Journal notes such online behavior can "reinforce patterns that e-commerce had promised to erase: prices that are higher in areas with less competition, including rural or poor areas. It diminishes the Internet's role as an equalizer." Click for the full investigation. (Read more online shopping stories.)