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How to Beat Fast-Changing Prices

Companies can raise prices quickly. Here’s how to beat them

spinner image hand holding up a speed tracker device and scanning fast moving cash paper money
Ben Mounsey-Wood

Constantly changing prices are nothing new when it comes to airline tickets, hotel rooms and ride-sharing services. But groceries? Yep, the prices of food and all kinds of other products and services are being adjusted up and down, sometimes on a daily basis — and not just because of inflation.

More and more retailers use automated computer programs that can rapidly change prices in response to competitor pricing, supply, demand and other market conditions. The practice is called dynamic pricing. Amazon and other online e-commerce companies have been at it for years. Since the adoption of electronic shelf tags and displays, it’s spread through the brick-and-mortar world too.

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Even restaurants, with the help of digital menus, are able to take advantage of the technology. That means the price of a dish on Tuesday could be different if you return on Saturday.

Slippery prices are great for retailers looking to keep up with market conditions and maximize profits, but they can be terrible for consumers. A 2021 paper from business school professor Alexander MacKay of Harvard and law professor Samuel Weinstein of Yeshiva University argues that major retailers’ rollout of sophisticated dynamic pricing programs forces competitors who can’t adjust as quickly to give up competing with low prices because they know it’s a lost cause.

The result, the authors say, is higher prices all around.

How can you fight back? Dozens of shopping strategies can cut the price you pay for a given item — cash-back apps, online promo codes and senior discounts, to name a few. But I’ve found that the best way to beat fast-changing prices is to be flexible on the timing of your purchase so you can pounce at just the right moment. For that, you need price-tracking programs and alerts, which automate the process. They can help you keep on top of price trends whether you’re shopping online or in stores. Here are sites and apps that offer them:

  • PayPal-Honey. If you download this browser extension on your computer, it will pop up when you’re viewing an item on Amazon, Target, Macy’s and many other shopping sites. Known for coupon codes and cash back, Honey also is a great tool for price tracking. Hover your cursor over the Honey icon and click on View Price History to bring up a chart that shows the product’s price over a period of weeks or months. Then add it to PayPay Honey's Droplist to receive price alerts by email. 
  • CamelCamelCamel. This Amazon-only price tracker is loaded with detailed information, including breakdowns of prices charged by Amazon and its third-party vendors. The browser extension will pop up while you’re on Amazon. Or you can paste the web address of an Amazon product page into the search bar on CamelCamelCamel’s website. You can also set price alerts by entering your email address. Even if you’re not planning to buy from Amazon, it can give you a good sense of pricing trends.
  • Pricepulse. This smartphone app can also provide detailed price histories and price alerts solely for Amazon products. It uses artificial intelligence to determine whether it’s a good time to buy, rating prices from Amazing (good) to High (bad). As I was writing this article, a fountain pen I had my eye on was rated Great, with the app telling me, “There’s a 91% probability this price will be higher. Our advice is buy it now.” Score! 
  • Capital One Shopping. Even if you’re not a Capital One customer, you can use the website to search for better prices for products and sign up for price alerts, or you can install the tool on your desktop as a browser extension. Like PayPal Honey, it automatically applies coupon codes. It also shows you prices at different retailer websites.
  • Google Shopping. To get price alerts from this site, do a Google search for a product, then tap or click the Shopping tab. Scroll down past the sponsored results until you see boxes with flag icons. Click on the product name, then click on View Product Details and look for a box reading Typical Prices Across the Web. Below that, for many items, is a Track Price feature for notifying you when the price drops. 
  • Flipp. When you’re shopping in stores, this mobile app will help you keep on top of sale prices in printed circulars. Set up a watch list on the app, and it will automatically round up deals on those items as they pop up.
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