By Melinda Fulmer
If you’re a new customer at the Bradford Exchange, you can get four boxes of personal checks for $23.97 with a new-customer coupon. The same order will cost a repeat customer who doesn’t have the coupon $59.60.
It may seem counterintuitive, but in the online shopping business, loyalty isn’t rewarded.
The best discounts are typically reserved for new customers. And one of the easiest ways to make Web retailers think you’re a new customer is to delete the cookies they leave on your computer, says Robert Weiss, an attorney specializing in information technology at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg in Chicago.
Bit of text can tell a lot
A cookie is a piece of text that a Web server sometimes stores on your computer when you visit a site. When you go back to that site, your browser retrieves this file, and the site identifies you as someone who’s shopped there before.
Retailers use this information to figure out the best way to sell to you. They can determine:
a. What departments you visited on their site.
b. How often you’ve been there and how long you were there.
c. What you’ve put in a shopping cart.
Amazon.com says it uses this type of information only to make product recommendations, not to decide who gets discounts. The e-commerce giant came under fire a few years ago for allegedly using this information to offer different prices to different customers.
Why the Internet sneak attack is better
It’s better to keep retailers in the dark, Weiss says.
“As a consumer, you’ve lost bargaining power, the more a seller knows about you,” says Weiss, who’s studied Internet pricing strategies.
It’s kind of like walking into a car dealership with an Italian suit and your paycheck in your hand.
Moreover, in the online world, new customers are the most coveted, says Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research. If you’re already buying from them, they assume you’ve made up your mind about them and need less encouragement to make purchases.
Indeed, on average, 53% of e-tailers’ online marketing budgets go to acquiring new customers through search-engine marketing and special deals through portals or coupon sites, according to a survey by Forrester. And less than 15% of online retailers offer exclusive deals through their e-mail lists, says the Email Experience Council, a marketing company. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it doesn’t help you score the best deals either.
New customers can land better bargains in almost every segment of the online shopping world, from apparel to food to travel. For example, new customers can get $20 off a $100 purchase at designer clothing site Bluefly, while existing customers are lucky to score 15% off a single item.
Similarly, new customers buying groceries through Peapod can get $20 off any purchase; the only deal existing customers can find is a $5 coupon. But to get these deals you have to be cookieless, and you can’t use an e-mail they recognize.
Appscout, a blog by the editors of PC Magazine, recently posted an item about a woman who was able to save at least $19 a night on a room at Bally’s casino in Las Vegas simply by deleting her cookies and hitting the site again to check for rooms.
A cautionary word before the cookies crumble
But before you go banishing those cookies to try to save a few bucks, be aware that there is a price to pay for deleting your browsing history. Namely, you won’t be automatically recognized on your favorite sites (such as this one). You’ll have to type in your log-in information and password in full to get access to membership and work sites, online news and banking.
And any settings you have chosen for MSN and other pages — your geographic location for weather and news, for example — will be gone as well.
A hassle? Yes. But you might be able to get a sweeter deal on a major purchase. And to some online shoppers in these difficult times, saving money is worth that inconvenience. For those who don’t mind a little extra work on the shopping side, there are a few ways around that scorched-earth strategy.
The right way to shop anonymously
If you’ve decided to put this kind of anonymous shopping to the test, here are a few pointers for doing it successfully.
First, become comfortable and familiar with the ways your computer stores cookies.
To delete cookies in Internet Explorer 7, hit the “Alt” key to get the menu, then select Tools, Internet Options, then the Browsing History tab. For Firefox, click on Tools, then Clear Private Data, then select Cookies. (For a list of cookie-delete instructions for other versions of Internet Explorer and for various other browsers, click here.)
If you want to pick and choose the cookies to be deleted in IE 7, hit the Alt key to bring up the menu, then click Tools, Internet Options and select Settings in the Browsing History area. Then click the View Files button. You’ll see file names that begin with “Cookie”: right-click the cookie’s name and select delete. In Firefox, click on Tools, then Options, select Privacy; then, in the Cookies panel, click on Show Cookies. To remove all cookies, click the Remove All Cookies button. (For selective cookie-delete options for other versions of Internet Explorer and for various other browsers, click here.)
You can also change your Internet Explorer’s privacy settings so that you don’t accept cookies from Web sites when you window-shop. Select Tools, Internet Options, then the Privacy tab. Use the slider to set limits on which cookies can be stored on your machine. In Firefox, click on Tools, then Options, then Privacy, then Cookies. You can configure which sites can place a cookie, how long to keep them and manage your existing cookies.
You can go a different route by trying an “anonymizer” that hides your Internet protocol (IP) address — which some retailers can track, experts say. You can find a list of anonymizer sites here; most offer a free trial.
Once you’ve selected something to purchase, don’t use the same e-mail address or credit card that you’ve previously used at that site. Instead, use a disposable e-mail address (here’s a list of 20 services offering them) or multiple e-mail accounts that forward to your main address, a feature available with most Web-based systems, including Hotmail and Gmail.
And if you’re really paranoid, you might even try logging in from another computer entirely.
Lastly, if you want to hedge your bets on loyalty deals for repeat customers, sign up for a site’s member discounts and newsletter on a different e-mail account and browser.
Delete cookies, score some dough
By Melinda Fulmer