Consumers leave a digital trail that advertisers target
Online • Where you click matters in getting the best deal.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Joseph Wilson was in the market for a pre-fabricated shed, he knew where to look for a good deal.

While at work one afternoon, Wilson pulled up on his iPad some sheds available on the Home Depot website. The prices looked reasonable, but he still wanted to clear the purchase with his wife.

That night, at home, Wilson pulled up the same shed on Home Depot's website. This time, he used their PC desktop computer.

The price was $100 less.

Curious ­— and a little confused — Wilson mailed a letter to Home Depot's president looking for an answer to the price discrepancy.

After a couple of weeks, a representative from Home Depot's service department called Wilson. He was told the discrepancy in online shed prices was because of regional pricing.

"There are so many factors that go into regional pricing," said Jennifer King, a senior manager of external communications and social media at Home Depot.

Factors such as supply, demand and local taxes can affect why identical items might have different prices at different stores, she said.

If a consumer does not choose a particular store location on the website, they will be shown a national price, King said.

Wilson determined the price difference he saw was caused by not choosing a store location on his iPad, which then gave him a national price. When he looked up the shed at home, the site displayed the nearest store's price.

The site was trying to present a Home Depot experience based on the data from two different computers that both happened to be owned by Wilson.

And that's supposed to happen, King said. Home Depot collects data based on where consumers click and the site could look different depending on your search history.

It's not a secret that companies target customers in their advertising.

In this digital age of mobile phones, tablets and computers, people spend more time and buy more products online, said Gerald Patnode, a professor of marketing and chair of the Graham School of Business at York College.

Advertisers recognize the new media and embrace it to connect with consumers, he said. Orbitz, the online travel company, publicized their data mining strategy this summer after various wire reports claimed Apple users were seeing higher prices than people searching on a PC.

Barney Harford, Orbitz CEO, wrote an op-ed column in USA Today explaining how the company uses consumer information.

It's all about collecting information about where people click, Harford said, not what type of computer is being used. The company collects your data and then tailors your next visit to the website to reflect your previous choices.

For example, what type of hotel room you like to reserve or how much you're willing to pay.

Home Depot collects data based on where consumers click, and the site could look different depending on your search history.

This marketing strategy isn't new, Patnode said. Advertisers have been collecting information on what consumers buy for decades.

"The change is the accessibility of information," he said. "There [are] no more secrets."