I carry a cell phone for personal security. Having a prepaid minutes plan, instead of a monthly service plan, keeps my monthly phone bills low and also discourages me from using the cell phone as if it were a "real" phone. (Y'know, extensive exposure to radio waves...) I actually like my cell phone; it has a microphone reasonably close to my mouth, a speaker reasonably close to my ear, and a key pad rather than a smeary, smudgy touch screen.
I was none too pleased a couple years ago, though, when Tracfone (about the only cell phone provider that works in this part of the world, even in favorable weather) doubled the cost of prepaid minutes in order to accommodate subsidized "Obamaphones" free of charge to people who claim to be poor. I didn't say a tremendous amount about it because "Obamaphones" are about the only way it's been possible to persuade some independent senior citizens to own cell phones, and their having cell phones is valuable, at least for my generation's peace of mind. But I wasn't pleased.
Anyway, having used up my prepaid minutes, I went to the store for more. The store that sells the actual cards has closed. A convenience store doesn't display the actual cards, but has a special phone line they can theoretically use to buy Tracfone minutes online. The following conversation took place:
"What's the total price on Tracfone minutes?"
"Nineteen ninety-nine for sixty minutes."
"What about two hundred minutes? That's what I usually buy."
"I don't know!"
"How can you not know what you're selling?"
"I don't know! People come in and say, 'Give me a twenty-dollar phone card.' That's all."
"Something's not right. Have the company changed the prices again? I'm here to buy the forty-dollar phone card, but I want to make sure the price is the same before I buy it."
So a store employee called Tracfone, asked them about their prices, waited, waited some more, and then was disconnected, while I explored the "Add Airtime" menu on the Tracfone. Lo and behold, they didn't show their prices on the phone either! They demanded a code identifying the phone with a credit card before the company would disclose its own prices to its own customers!
The employee called three other stores before finding a friend who could look at the current phone cards and verify that the card showing 200 minutes still cost $39.99. The thoughts that came to mind were not pleasant ones.
(1) In the Information Age, nobody should ever admit to knowing what a credit card might be until they know the price they're paying. Or refusing to pay, if it's unreasonable.
(2) Nor should credit card information ever be transmitted via cell phone.
(3) What possible reason could there be for not displaying the prices of Tracfone's different minute plans right on the phone screen? Discrimination, of course. When businesses don't display prices clearly marked for all customers to see, that's a reliable indicator that they intend to charge some customers more than they think they can get away with charging other customers.
Who's likely to be overcharged? One group of people who usually don't know that they're being overcharged are the residents of areas where, for some reason, some sort of tax or surcharge, or some sort of other special requirement, usually not well publicized, has been imposed on a certain category of product or service. Maybe activists in your state demanded higher standards of safety or emissions control for cars, at some point. Congratulations--a car may now cost you more than the same car would cost people in another state, even if the industry standards are now higher than the special requirements in your state once were.
Then there are the cases where, because one store owned by a company costs more to operate than another store--it's in a higher-rent neighborhood, it's in a bigger building, it's in a building that's due for expensive repairs--the same product costs more at Store A than it does at Store B.
And then there's the personal touch the Information Age allows businesses to bring back. I've known people who defended this as part of an ancestral cultural heritage: you always give "your own people" a better deal than you give foreigners, they say. I think of this idea as "un-American," yet it's acceptable to some Native Americans. My Significant Other and I used to stop at a convenience store where prices were marked, but somehow when we got to the counter, alone or together, total prices would reflect a sizable discount over the marked price. Someone seen as White or Black wouldn't get that discount--I followed a few White-looking friends in and checked. I have no idea whether the company was aware that this discriminatory discounting was going on; the company didn't outlive its founder anyway.
If you buy something from a company that uses some sort of devious online technique to find out information about you before disclosing its price, here are some general things you can expect:
- U.S. citizens pay more than other people, worldwide.
- Women pay more than men, generally.
- Residents of what are considered higher-rent cities or neighborhoods pay more than residents of lower-rent areas.
- In some businesses, White or White-looking people pay more; in others the reverse may occur.
- In some businesses, Christians, non-religious people, or members of minority religions pay more than Jews or Muslims.
- And of course, if someone somewhere in the business just happens to dislike you, you personally might be charged more than other people.
Don't like it? I don't like it either. Demand that companies with which you do business display a single price for all customers, or else expect to see more discriminatory pricing going on.