Cookie pricing “absolutely not” a Hotwire practice

By | March 10th, 2009

If Hotwire didn’t rig its system to display higher prices based a user’s Web “cookies” — as it claimed in a recent post — then what happened to Matt Ilardo’s car rental quote? I asked Hotwire for an explanation, and today, it responded.

By way of background, Illardo saw two prices for the same product: $88 for a three-day rental in New York from one computer and $117 from another. His is the latest in a series of unanswerable questions about cookies and pricing from readers.

“I performed this test several times, and if I logged on after I got the cheaper price, I would find the cheaper price,” he told me. “If I cleared the cookies on the computer and re-did the search, I would get the cheaper price. And every time I was logged on and did the search under my name, I would get the more expensive price.”

Here’s the result of Hotwire’s investigation, according to company spokesman Garrett Whittemore:

Using customer information to generate increased price quotes is absolutely not a Hotwire practice. What happened to Matt was unusual. I can assure you that had he completed his transaction, he would have received our best available price at the time he chose to book.

First, I’d like to clarify a couple of business facts, both of which are common to most online retailers.

The inventory available through our site is dependent upon our suppliers’, and it can change quickly. Inventory drives price so our prices change as well. Also, when a customer logs in and initiates a search, the search results are cached for a short period of time. We cache search results to help avoid overloading our suppliers’ systems. And to improve results load time for our customers.

Matt’s initial search results showed $88 inventory. He was not logged in during this search so these results were not cached for his user account. He was indeed logged in during his second search, and we showed inventory at $117 – which was the lowest price option at the time.

This data was cached for his user account. During his third search he was not logged in and the $88 inventory was again available. While not unprecedented, it’s very unusual for inventory to come back that quickly, and even more unusual for it to come back again at the same cost. But at this point, any time Matt did a search while logged in; the site pulled his results from his user cache.

Any time that Matt decided to check out, regardless of whether his chosen result was cached or not, we would have pinged our supplier’s server and provided the best price available on our site at that time. His price could have gone up, down, or stayed the same vs. his search results, depending on the available inventory. If the $88 inventory was available, he would have received it, even if the price quoted was $117.

We absolutely understand Matt’s concern and want to address it. Bottom line: Hotwire is in the business of delivering great deals, and Matt would have seen our best possible price available for the car booking he wanted before he made his final purchase decision. I hope this is a concise but thorough explanation of a highly unusual situation that rarely occurs and is not part of our plan.

The explanation makes sense, and I believe Hotwire. But travelers don’t typically draw a distinction between a price that’s cached on their browser and the actual price that’s generated by a server. And in that sense, Ilardo’s experience with Hotwire remains somewhat problematic.

The bottom line for him is that Hotwire generated two different prices, something Hotwire doesn’t deny — but insists is “highly unusual.”

As long as this continues to happen, I think people will wonder what kind of role, if any, cookies play in generating price quotes. And some of the more ethically-challenged companies that don’t have Hotwire’s high standards may be tempted to exploit this client/server uncertainty.

  • AceRoinox

    Hotwire has gamed me a couple of times (at least that I’ve caught them…maybe more before I realized what was going on. Here’s the scenario:
    I had been researching prices for a trip for a couple of months. When I finally decided to pull the trigger, I selected a property and made the reservation. After the final confirmation page (right before you learn the property name) it came back and said the property was no longer available, and that I needed to search again. That seemed odd, but the next search not only no longer had my property of choice, but all the other properties had gone up in price. It didn’t pass the smell test, so I cleared my cache and cookies and tried again–same problem. I went to a different browser and was able to find my original property at the original price (and magically, all the other properties were back to their original prices as well!). As soon as I logged in to book the property it was gone. I re-queried and had the same experience as above. I then went to a completely different computer, was able to get my original property of choice at the original price by creating a new Hotwire account. I now do all my research on one computer and book my trips on a different machine using my second Hotwire account.

    So no, I don’t buy their explanation. They are clearly gaming us. Why? Because they can, it’s profitable, and almost impossible to prove that it’s not a case of fluctuating inventory.

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