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Apps track emails, receipts to spot potential price-match refunds

June 13, 2016 


CHICAGO ó Nothing takes a big-ticket buy from exciting to maddening faster than finding out the item went on sale shortly after a purchase. A handful of apps have popped up recently promising to track shoppersí purchases and score refunds from retailers who offer to match post-purchase price changes.

But at least one retail analyst isnít sold on the idea, and there are privacy concerns associated with the apps that consumers should be aware of.

Price guarantees make even less sense when customers can outsource the work of finding the deal, said David Marcotte, senior vice president at Kantar Retail.

"From the retailer perspective, this gets stupid on so many levels itís embarrassing," Marcotte said.

According to the CEOs of two of the refund-hunting apps, Amazon appears to have made it harder for customers to get cash back when the e-commerce giant lowers prices soon after customersí purchases.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Earny CEO Oded Vakrat said Amazon used to grant refunds if a customer noticed the retailer reduced a productís price within a week of their purchase, but now only offers them on TVs and pre-ordered items. Eric Glyman, CEO and co-founder of a similar app called Paribus, said the service had helped customers get cash back from Amazon on a wider range of products in the past.

TechCrunch posted an image of an email in which Amazon customer service referred to a "7 days price match from the time of delivery." Users of social networking website Reddit also said theyíd received refunds on items sold and shipped by Amazon when Amazonís price dropped within a week a delivery.

In a statement, Amazon denied ever offering post-purchase price adjustments on other products, saying the company works to keep prices low enough that a price-matching policy isnít necessary.

Although handy for consumers, retailers likely didnít envision the apps when they created the price guarantees, retail analysts said, and users need to give up some personal info to get the deals.

Paribus and Earny connect to a userís email account, scan messages for e-receipts, compile a list of items purchased, automatically monitor prices on those items at retailers that meet the storeís price match policy, and file refund claims on the userís behalf. They also ask for the email and password to access usersí Amazon accounts since Amazon email receipts donít provide all the information needed to request refunds.

In its statement, Amazon also said it takes customer security seriously and asked customers not to share account information.

Both services take a 25 percent cut of any refunds they find.

Paribus has been out for a little more than a year, and the average user saves $60 to $100 per year, Glyman said. Earny launched publicly in May and said it had raised $1.2 million from investors including Sweet Capital and Science.

Shopping app Slice also pulls its purchase data from receipts in usersí email inboxes and requests Amazon credentials. The app has been around since 2010 and also can track packages, provide product recall notifications and analyze usersí spending.

Price-drop monitoring is now one of the most popular features, said Slice CEO Harpinder Singh. The average refund is about $13 to $15, and the average user gets six to eight each year, he said.

Slice doesnít take a share of the refunds it finds. The companyís market research arm, Slice Intelligence, uses anonymous purchase data from about 4.2 million people using the shopping app and Unroll.Me, an email subscription management service that helps users get rid of spam, to compile data on what people buy online. Clients can subscribe to monthly syndicated data covering their own products and competitorsí brands, and Slice Intelligence also does in-house analysis.

Pricerazzi, a Canadian app that arrived in the U.S. in April, offers a similar service but has users scan receipts for items they want Pricerazzi to monitor. If Pricerazzi finds a price entitling a user to money back, it will hand over the info customers need to submit a claim in exchange for 15 percent of the value. If the retailer rejects the request, Pricerazzi refunds the fee.

Wal-Mart offers a similar service through its Savings Catcher program, but limits the number of receipts users can submit and reimburses the difference on cards redeemable at its stores or website. Some credit cards also refund price drops but most arenít automatic and the card company, not the retailer, foots the bill.

Retailers began offering to match prices at certain competitors or if prices dropped post-purchase because they worried widespread adoption of smartphones would encourage customers to investigate every purchase and abandon traditional stores for online deals, said Brian Kilcourse, managing partner at Retail Systems Research.

Matching prices was a way to reassure customers that they could shop without losing out on a better price, he said.

Both Kilcourse and Marcotte said retailers should be wary of putting so much emphasis on prices.

Touting rock-bottom prices draws customers loyal to low prices, not a particular store, and matching prices limits a retailerís ability to control its profit margin, Marcotte said.

But Marcotte said he doesnít expect retailers to cut back on price matching, even with third-party services that could make it easier for customers to ask for more cash back.

"I donít think itís become painful enough to react yet," he said.

Glyman and Vakrat said their apps can benefit retailers since customers are more likely to come back to shops where they feel they can get the best price.

Still, the apps donít go out of their way to advertise customers didnít find a better price on their own.

Both Paribus and Earny request refunds by sending emails from usersí accounts, sometimes signed with the userís name. Glyman said Paribus is acting on the customerís behalf and has found the emails "maximize our usefulness to the customer." Slice automatically generates a draft email for each refund claim but asks the user to hit send.

The access to customersí email accounts and purchases has prompted questions about who gets to see that data, and representatives of all four apps said they take usersí privacy and data security seriously. Two privacy experts who reviewed the appsí privacy policies said some take a relatively narrow view of what information is personal and what their policies allow them to share.

Pricerazzi founder and CEO Declan McDonald said privacy concerns are part of the reason Pricerazzi asks for photos of receipts instead of pulling them from emails. Slice, Paribus and Earny said they donít analyze or store nonreceipt emails.

Glyman said Paribus does not sell usersí data, though its privacy policy would allow it to do so. McDonald also said Pricerazzi does not sell user data, though he could see doing it down the line "if it benefits customers."

Even when apps have the best intentions on privacy and data security, the more companies that users share sensitive data with, the greater the risk of getting caught up in a security breach, said Gautam Hans, policy counsel and director at the Center for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco. Claire Gartland, consumer protection counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, found requests for access to shopping accounts like Amazon particularly concerning since they typically include full credit card or bank account data not found on a receipt.

The risk of a breach doesnít mean never sharing personal info ó just weighing the perks against potential costs, Hans said.

"If someone comes up with a good product, even if they ask for a lot of info, it might be so appealing to me that I want to do it," he said.

Kilcourse thought many shoppers would find requests for access to their emails "creepy," but Marcotte didnít think that would stop people from using the services.

"Americans, at end of the day, talk about valuing privacy, but they donít generally behave that way," he said.

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services