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Modulation of online advertised prices - Analysis of commercial practices and the legal framework in Canada

Are online prices the same for everyone? According to recent American studies, this is not always the case. On the Internet, retailers can continually modify the prices they advertise. They can also collect data generated by visitors to their websites, and use it to personalize the prices presented to them. Depending on their profile, each visitor will see a different price.

To better document the existence of such commercial practices in Canada, Option consommateurs conducted a field survey with the help of Internet users who visited the websites of 8 Canadian retailers. The field survey revealed that, on 6 of these 8 sites, different prices were advertised for the same goods or services in 13.6% of cases. Most of these cases were in the travel sector, but we were also able to identify cases in the retail sector. However, this study was unable to determine which factors were causing the observed price variations.

The 8 merchants in our study give very little information about their online price display practices. A few suggest that advertised prices may vary according to a person's location, or that the ranking of web search results may be modulated according to consumer criteria. On the other hand, all the companies claim that they will be able to use consumers' personal information to personalize the customer experience - which does not rule out the possibility of modulating online prices according to this information.

A survey of Canadian consumers shows that they are overwhelmingly opposed to online merchants using their personal information to personalize advertised prices, and want merchants to be transparent about these practices.

Although the law does not directly regulate online price modulation, several areas of law may affect these commercial practices. In terms of both privacy and consumer protection, this fragmented legal framework means that merchants who engage in price modulation should, at the very least, adequately inform consumers. What's more, certain price modulation practices could, through their indirect effects, constitute forms of unlawful discrimination.

In conclusion, Option consommateurs recommends that further studies be carried out in Canada to better understand price modulation practices and the fairness and ethical issues they raise. Option consommateurs also recommends that effective mechanisms be implemented to inform consumers and obtain their meaningful consent.