Leave it to an evolutionary biologist, Michael Eisen at UC Berkeley, to stumble upon and turn his microcope on the mysterious upward spiral pricing algorithm implemented by booksellers on Amazon that caused a relatively obscure title like The Making of a Fly by Peter Lawrence to be listed at $23,698,655.93! For that staggering price you would expect free shipping, but alas, the buyer needs to have deep enough pockets to fork over another $3.99 for shipping. Evidently, a book this valuable does not require insurance or proof of delivery.
Eisen uses his keen scientific and investigative skills to systematically track the competing values of the book offered by two booksellers and discovers the underlying multiplier that the retailers are using to increase the cost of the book — on the fly (that magic number happens to be 1.270589). Because retailers generally want to offer the lowest price, this ceaseless increase in price puzzles Eisen. After carefully examining the pattern, he surmises that one of the retailers does not actually own the book and is using another seller’s inventory and price to determine its own higher price — thus an upward pricing spiral that, over time, flies in the face of commonsense and credulity. As Eisen points out, the algorithms did not have any built-in sanity checks. Thus, a book on flies that should have been selling for $100 eventually peaked on April 18, 2011 to a record-setting $23,698,655.93. Talk about runaway inflation.
As one of Eisen’s astute readers notes, this is not really an Amazon problem, but rather the case of two sellers that are using simple automatic software pricing bots (provided by third-party companies) that adjust the book’s price based on its current lowest or highest selling price. “Oftentimes a grossly inflated price,” he writes, “is just a quirk in the program and the seller’s software re-pricing program kicks in to match the other seller’s price.” In other words, the fly in the ointment — ahem — is this pesky little pricing program. Some fly-by-night retailers play this automated price adjustment game (generally a difference of $.01) in an infinite loop until some unsuspecting consumer purchases the book (or if it exceeds Amazon’s integer overflow parameters).
One can only wonder if William Golding would fly off the handle knowing that a treasured first edition of his classic novel, Lord of the Flies, published in 1954 is valued at a mere $20,000 — a tiny fraction of the value of a modern textbook on the lowly drosophila.
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For further reading: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=358