/ Money, Shopping, Technology

Gadget price fluctuations – it’s a roller-coaster online

If you’re out to buy a new piece of kit, you’re going to want to buy it at the best price, which means timing your purchase just right. But if prices are fluctuating so much online, what chance do we have?

At the end of last year, the Which? Tech team started tracking the prices of several popular products in the run up to Christmas. We wanted to know whether the prices of certain tech goods fluctuated before and after the festive period, and if any savings could be made by shopping at a certain time.

Well, as it turned out, the results weren’t terribly interesting. However, there was one product that caught my eye. I was tracking a TomTom sat nav on Comet’s website for a month, and it threw up some interesting prices week after week:

  • 1 Dec – £169.99
  • 8 Dec – £169.99
  • 15 Dec – £119.00
  • 22 Dec – £109.99
  • 5 Jan – £259.99

Checking the price became something of a game, like an online ‘Play Your Cards Right’.

Comet defends price variations

So how can this anomaly be explained? I asked Comet why such price variations might have occurred – it responded with the following:

‘Our deals offer our customers fantastic value and we work hard to deliver great savings across all our products.

‘We operate in an extremely competitive environment and we’re always keen to match and surpass emerging deals across the market. This means pricing can change quickly. Other factors include the scale and timings of the deals agreed with our suppliers.’

Whether the price fluctuations of this sat nav on Comet’s site were based on stock issues or a response to rival retailers, it certainly demonstrated the fragility of online pricing.

Erratic online prices

While fluctuating online prices is nothing new, the above example does highlight the perils of waiting too long for a better price. If you’d been holding on for this particular sat nav to drop below £109.99, you would have been pretty upset to discover an increase of £150 a couple of weeks later!

So, is this a problem? There are so many retailers competing for your money that it would be very easy to find the product you were after cheaper elsewhere. The problem occurs when the item in question is a retailer exclusive that you can’t buy anywhere else.

Then again, this is just one product on one retailer’s website – the question is, can anyone beat my TomTom for erratic pricing?


Hard disk drives. E.g. after several months on Amazon at below £60, the Seagate Barracuda 2TB shot up from £59 to £138 almost overnight, and then has gradually fallen to around the £99 mark, although you could have snapped one up on Christmas Day for £82.

The price fluctuation is a reflection of supply shortages caused by flooding in Thailand, but it illustrates how the world’s technology production is concentrated in small geographical areas and sensitive to local catastophic events, just as the Japanese earthquake affected the supply of cameras, cars and other consumer durables.

Just-in-time manufacturing keeps inventory and prices low when things run smoothly, but the supply chain is very short and we feel the jerks when things don’t go to plan.

I had a similar issue with a Western Digital 2tb drive on Amazon – started off at £79.00 and obviously waited for it to fall. A week later it had gone up to £180.00. It dropped to £99.00 a while back but I’ve just checked this second and it is currently at £115.00. I guess I’ll be waiting a little longer then!

Indeed Scott. We are looking at Q3/Q4 2012 before supplies and inventories stabilize. You should then start to see consumer prices fall, as the HDD manufacturers compete on volume.

At the moment nearly all production is being channelled to the OEMs – Dell, HP, etc. as the loss of supply is affecting their ability to sell finished PCs.

You can still find the odd external HDD drive on sale for less than the component cost – might be worth looking for one of these if you are desperate.

I hope these differences are not typical, or I have wasted a lot of money by simply checking a few prices before making purchases. Must try harder.

The only people I know who put a lot of effort into monitoring prices tend to buy things they do not need simply because they have found bargains.

I think it’s a given that once you buy something, you always see it cheaper somewhere else about a week later.
I lived in Holland whilst the exchange rate with the euro was going through the floor. I was buying a tv at the time and so I checked the prices in and around Haarlem/Amsterdam. Then I checked the Empire Direct price and it was half price after the currency exchange. Half Price!

For a few months, goods in the UK kept getting cheaper and cheaper as my gold plated Euros just kept going up in value. This was when I paid off all my debts.

Then sure enough, prices started to equalise as companies realised that they were being undercut

I use CamelCamelCamel http://uk.camelcamelcamel.com/ – admittedly it’s only for Amazon in the UK, but it’s really useful for tracking historical pricing and alerting you when the price drops below a pre-set level that you’re willing to pay.

Agreed – it is always worth checking this before buying from Amazon – or elsewhere on the Internet. In fact I used Camel x 3 to verify the prices in my post on HDDs above. Forgot to mention it!