You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

The Boston Globe

Business

Bouncing holiday prices have buyers reeling

Kohl’s recently added digital shelf signs and price tags.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff /File 2012

Kohl’s recently added digital shelf signs and price tags.

The final countdown is underway for holiday shoppers and, if you’re holding out for a Christmas Eve shopping spree on the theory discounts will be plentiful, think again.

Consumers this year are likely to score big bargains on Friday, Dec. 21 — when, figures from last holiday season show, 40 percent of items dropped in price. But shoppers who wait until Dec. 24 will probably pay — literally — for their procrastination, as they did last year when retailers marked up 40 percent of products by an average of 15 percent on Christmas Eve.

Continue reading below

The data come from the Maynard technology firm ShopAdvisor. At the Globe’s request, the company analyzed online prices for more than 20,000 products from last holiday season.

For example, a 50-inch Samsung 3D plasma television advertised at $1,499 at the end of November 2011, dropped to $850 on Dec. 21 and soared to $1,638 on Christmas Eve. A KitchenAid handheld blender featured for $100 during the last week of November fell to $90 on Dec. 21 and zoomed to $180 four days later. The price range for Fergalicious black faux suede boots was even wider — they rose by 87 percent to $70 between Dec. 21 and 24.

“We saw the two important factors come together on Dec. 21 — we had the highest discount rate and the greatest number of products at that high rate,” said Andrew Mahon of ShopAdvisor, which monitors more than 300,000 products at roughly 5,000 online and traditional retail stores.

“With each passing day as Christmas approaches, more and more products get a price increase or a price decrease — and the average amount of increase or decrease is is also getting larger,” Mahon said.

While pricing apps have made it simple for consumers to figure out where the bargains are, keeping up with the pace of price fluctuations during the holidays requires the stamina and concentration of a shopping Olympian. Retailers adjust prices based on sophisticated technology that monitors inventory and competitors, and provides sales forecasting data, according to Greg Girard of IDC Insights, a Framingham market research firm.

Prices can change multiple times within 24 hours, swinging wildly from day to day. Last week, a Samsonite Spinner garment bag sold by Amazon for $179.99 on Dec. 15 cost $279 on the site the next day, ShopAdvisor said. A leather “Moto” jacket at Express sold for $70.80 on Dec. 16 and $118 the following day. A Tiffany style stained glass window sold on QVC dropped from $320.40 on Dec. 16 to $198.36 a day later.

“It can create confusion and a sense of unfairness,” Girard said. “Smart retailers try to sell through to almost the very end — but they’ll hold onto stuff to get that procrastinator. It’s a keen pricing strategy.”

Amazon took the lead among retailers years ago by employing so-called dynamic pricing — adjusting prices based on competition and demand — a practice long standard in the airline industry. Now, more brick-and-mortar merchants also are using it.

Kohl’s Corp., the discount department store chain, recently added digital shelf signs and price tags in shops, making it easier for the retailer to roll out promotions based on the time of day. Kohl’s did not return messages seeking comment.

Some consumers, however, are not pleased with the new age of rolling prices.

“They seem to go up and down and back up again every couple of days, especially electronics and computer-based toys that we all want,” said Kathy Sweezey of Saugus. “It’s both frustrating and annoying.”

Others, like Bruce Lyndes of Fairlee, Vt., are closely monitoring frequent pricing changes. Lyndes has been tracking a 32-inch HD television he wants to buy this holiday season. On Black Friday, the TV was going for $150 to $200, he said, and soon after increased by about 15 to 20 percent. The price has dipped to Black Friday levels in recent days, but Lyndes is holding out for what he hopes will be a new low this Friday. “I could see some big-box stores springing some last-minute deals to inch up their bottom line,” he said. “The online competition is really changing the game and I’m hoping to cash in on that heightened awareness that you need to cut some deals to get people to buy, because if you don’t, someone else will and they’re just a click away.”

ShopAdvisor, which developed an app that sends alerts to consumers when prices drop on products they are monitoring, also revealed that the timing of deals differs by product category. For instance, shoppers last year found the lowest prices for video games and other electronics on Dec. 23 while book bargains were best on Dec. 16. The optimum day to buy toys, cameras, and furniture was Dec. 21.

Edgar Dworsky, a local consumer advocate, cautioned that because ShopAdvisor’s historical data examine only online prices, the figures miss out on in-store doorbuster deals offered the day after Thanksgiving.

Nonetheless, Dworsky, who runs ConsumerWorld.org, said shoppers need to develop a “price consciousness” about the particular item they are interested in purchasing. By knowing the range of prices something has sold for in the recent past, he said, shoppers can quickly recognize whether the price of the moment is great, lousy, or merely decent. Online tools such as Pricespider.com — which keeps a six-month history of most products — can help consumers stay on top of the ups and downs.

But consumers like Don Larose of Duxbury — who tend to leave holiday shopping to the final hours — do not have time to worry about scoring a deal. Larose said he usually walks out of a store “having spent money on whatever caught my fancy” and avoids dwelling on how he might have saved under different circumstances.

Otherwise, Larose said, “Buyer’s remorse will eat you up inside.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.

Correction: Because of a graphics editor’s error, an earlier version of this story included inaccurate numbers. Last year’s sales cycles show that the average price of a Samsung 50-inch television dropped 43 percent between the last week of November and Dec. 21, before jumping again by Dec. 24. The price of a Hasbro Lite Brite Cube went from $32 the last week of November, to $15 on Dec. 21, and $38 on Dec. 24. Over the same period, a Visio 8-inch tablet went from $242 to $150 to $290.

Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week