Today was ... interesting. If you followed me for the past months over on the shitbird site, you might have seen a bunch of angry German words, lots of graphs, and the occassional news paper, radio, or TV snippet with yours truely. Let me explain.
In Austria, inflation is way above the EU average. There's no end in sight. This is especially true for basic needs like energy and food.
Our government stated in May that they'd build a food price database together with the big grocery chains. But..
the responsible minister claimed it's an immense task and will take til autumn. It will only include 16 product categories (think flour, milk,etc.). And it will only be updated once a week.
Given how Austria works, some corp close to the minister would have gotten the contract for a million on two to create a POS just enough so the minister can say "look, I did something!"
Well. I heard that and build a prototype for all products of the two biggest chains in 2 hours. The media picked it up...
Here's a selection of media coverage of the entire thing.
It spread like wild fire and made the minister look like an idiot.
I took the thing down in fear of retaliation by the grocery chains. My plan: get a big NGO, news outlet or political party to host the thing and be a legal shield for the endevour.
Almost every NGO, media outlet and political party got in contzct with me (not the other way around). There were lots of promises and big words but zero action.
All these orgs only had their self-interest in mind. After two weeks of this bullshit, I figured I might as well gamble and put this thing up in my own name.
Surely the grocery chains won't sue me. The bad PR would easily outweigh whatever little inckme loss they'd suffer from a few hundred people using the site to find the cheapest product.
You see, I'm basically just crawling the stores online stores. Most of them have an API. I then normalize the data across the stores, and expose it.
The whole thing runs client-site. The server fetches the latest data from the stores once a day. All data fits into 5mb of gzipped JSON. Small enough for the client to do anything. The server just serves 8 static files. It can handle serve all of Austria easily and could be scaled trivially. It's just static files.
Being the idiot I am, I also made it open-source:
And as usual, people flocked to it and contributed. In no time we had all stores in Austria in there.
Then we also got German and Slovenian stores. Then we normalized product categories across stores and added some light data science techniques to match the same or similar products across stores to make prices more easily comparable. You know, iterative improvements.
And then some anomymous guy in Twitter send me the data he crawled for the two biggest chains. Starting in 2017. And that's when thinga really got interesting...
My first analysis actually happened before I build the platform. I was manually comparing prices of products the stores themselves offer in the lowest price segment. Things like grocer store brand milk or flour.
I compared 40 product pairs across the two biggest chains. And lo and behold: their prices matched exactly to the cent!
An NGO picked this up on Twitter and did the analysis for 600 product pairs. Same picture.
With my platform in place, I could do more advanced stuff.
E.g. given the historical data, I could see price movements for a product across the two chains. And you won't believe what I found (well, you know what's coming...)
Them fine grocery chains changed the prices of the self-branded low cost products with one to two days, or even on the same day. And they both came up with the exact same price.
This wasn't only happening in the low-price chain-brand segment. It also happened in the mid-range segment of self-branded goods.
And it all started happening when inflation went through the roof.
Clearly, something was up. My guess was: tacit collusion, meaning, oligopolic price coordination without explicit coordination.
Meanwhile, others have build platforms like I did as well. And they too saw these patterns.
There were more.
Then I looked at an aspect pretty unique to Austria: discounts.
You see, in a normal country, with a competitive grocery market, you usually have about 10%-20% of products that get discounted on average.
In Austria, that rate is 40%. It's a fantastic way to obfuscate the actual price of a product. As a customer, you'll never know what you'll pay on that day until you see the current discounts directly in the store.
The chains are very generous and will send you discount leaflets via mail.
If I were trying to describe it in more flowerly terms: It's asymmetric information war fare.
The stores tell you they are good and benevolent and only have your interest at heart, so here are discounts. Discounts for everyone. They even gamified the whole thing with stickers. I shit you not. People collect stickers they put on the products in the convery belt at the register. There's also apps, which will give them all info on you
In reality it makes it impossible to know how much things cost
The grocery chains got a little iffy about all that somewhat negative media coverage, some of which was spurred by my continued analyses.
They started to put out these things in the store. It basically says "We've already lowered the prices of 450 products for you this year". With a sortiment of 22000.
They were also dumb enough to put out a machine readable PDF with all the products they lowered the price for.
With a little data science magic, I was able to match those with my database...
And lo and behold. There was fun to be had.
There are products that are cyclic in their price changes. E.g. this axe shower gel, which they listed as having a lower price now.
Yeah, you lowered the price from 3.99 to 2.99. But that follows the exact pattern this product's price had over the last couple of years.
Technically correct. But not a permanent price decrease.
Second picture is another example of that.
But there's a more "nefarious" kind of price decrease.
As I said, Austria is a country of insane amounts of cyclic discounts. Many products will be sold for their "regular" price for one week and a discount price the other.
The real price for the consumer is the average of the regular and discounted price.
Given this knowledge, do you notice something with the prices for this product the grocery chain claims to have decreased the regular price on?
Of course you do, cause you are a smart cookie.
While their claim that they decreased the regular price is correct, they also increased the discounted price that comes into play every other X weeks/days.
So they are again technically correct: the regular price was decreased.
But on average, a consumer pays more if they buy the product every week, as the discounted price has been increased. The average is higher than before.
All that media coverage of my platform and the platforms of other people, with whom I've started to converse and who've became friends of sorts, triggered the competition authority of Austria.
You know, the guys and gals who's job it is to sniff out anti-competitive behaviour, cartels, price gauging and coordination and so on.
They contacted all of us to ask what we'd need to continue doing our work. They actually saw value in that.
We provided them with a shit ton of feedback.
The basic gist of that feedback:
- Legal: it must be legal for us to crawl and publish the price data the stores put out on the web in their online stores
- Technical: ideally, stores would be forced to put that data out in a normalized form, so matching and comparisons become easier. We already did that ourselves though, with some data science and heuristics, so no biggie if that doesn't happen.
Besides that feedback, I also send them a shitton of data and patterns I found.
I'm but a lowly computer nerd and lay person, and not someone with an economics degree. I simply handed the data over in the hopes their experts would figure this shit out.
Well. Today they presented their first preliminary report.
In it, they basically copied my long ass email with answers to their questions from earlier more or less verbatim. They agreed with my conclusions regarding what needs to be done on the legal and technical site.
And they also officially said it's very likely the grocery chains use automated systems to follow each other in prices.
No word on the other data. We'll find out what they think end of October when the full report is scheduled to be released.
Now, here's how the chain of command works in this sector.
The competition authority is apolitical but under the reign of the politically appointed minister of economics. They can only report and suggest to him.
He then decides what gets done.
The suggestion by the competition authority to the minister was great:
1. Using the data should be made legal by the legislature for certain parties, including price comparison platforms and academic institutions.
2. Grocery chains of a certain size must publish all their data in real-time according to a predefined scheme with all necessary meta data to make things comparable and allow matching of products across stores.
Fantastic! Or so I thought.
Remember the chain of command. The minister decides what actually gets done.
And that minister is a member of the conservative party. You can already guess what gets done, right?
1. The grocery chains must publish data. But only for a hand-picked list of basic products. Not the entire sortiment, like we do now.
2. Platform owners can be sanctioned/sued if they display the data the wrong way.
There's are only two up-sides in all of this.
First of all, the minister initially planned to create a price comparison platform "himself". This would have meant that some company he's buddy buddy with would have gotten a million Euro contract and delivered an abmysal failure of a system.
He's now given up on that.
The second upside: as soon as media coverage of our efforts picked up, the price hikes stopped for the most part. I'm obviously not entirely attributing this to our work. But I like to think we played a part in it.
I don't have a sound cloud, but I have another little project.
We have a charity where we ask for donations which we convert into €50 grocery vouchers for Ukrainian families that fled to Austria. Our state fails them as well.
We are zero overhead, every cent goes towards the vouchers. We pay the rest (envelops, stamps, printer cartridges, etc.)
We are 100% transparent, all contracts/orders/bills/payments here:
Bunch of friends doing stuff.
Yeah, the irony of sending grocery vouchers for the same grocery stores that I go up against with my platform is not lost on me.
Anyways, we've been able to send out ~4500 vouchers in a bit over a year to as many families. That's about €220,000 worth of donations.
~6000 families have signed up with us, about 1500 are still waiting for a voucher.
If you can spare some money, here you go:
The latest batch went out today. CW link to shitbird site
Oh, and if you want to do this for your own country, you can re-use what we build so far!
Happy to help if you need guidance! Adding a store is usually less than 200 LOC if they have a search API in their web store.
you have absolutely no reason to apologize. You did the work. You potentially changed the lives of thousands or even millions of people for the better.
You did good and you deserve nothing but praise, regardless of code quality.
BRB, forking it to rewrite in typescript. ;)
Your whole story is amazing. Everyone should read this!
If I can do just a fraction of what you have done for your fellow humans, I'll feel that I've lived a useful life. That's the aim. :)
This is amazing. Thank you for doing this!
I believe a lot of supermarkets here (in BE) have API's... hmmmz.
Thanks for your incredible job.
I wish more people where educated to act like you! You are doing such an important job!
Keep it up, you have all my support!
also in the US there is a rather nefarious pricing scheme that happens at some big stores - where prices for the same products vary from physical store to physical store of the same chain. (And prices for many products will differ when priced for delivery whether same day or by mail from the in store prices. Which makes looking at their websites or apps for prices even less reliable.
(And some companies do things like send you a discount if you merely open their website once)
did you see the report by the IMF (yes, the Internationale Währungsfond) that half the inflation was caused by company profits? https://www.draketo.de/politik/kommentare#inflation-unternehmensgewinne-iwf
It’s crazy that that story didn’t already get people riled up, but it seems they have to see *how* it happens and get a news anchor (2 hours vs. 2 months) to find it, and you showed that beautifully!
Why and how should it be illegal to crawl that data?
Before I read this toot, I wouldn't have worried about this in the slightest.
In Australia, Coles does this.
It's yet another advantage rich people have over the poor: I pay less for my groceries because I can buy them when they're discounted before I need them, and ignore them when they are not discounted.
Insight and frustrating data for me - as here in Lithuania, Red Bull is normally €1.49 (and of course discounts drop it a bit), so pricing probably resembles the Austria, rather than Germany, graph. I have a strong suspicion there is also supermarket collusion here (there are only three bigger supermarkets + Lidl), but I’ve not actually done much data analysis to confirm my theory.
Lidl definitely does the non-standard product sizes - I compared Lithuanian water bottles from there vs. normal shops where they were a tiny bit more expensive, and realised that the bottle I thought was 2L (from the normal store) was 1.8L at Lidl and the same or more expensive by volume!
Regarding comparisons across countries you need to be a bit careful because the listed prices include VAT and that is different in different countries. AFAIK Germany has a significantly different VAT for beverages, for example.
In any case, thanks for your great work. I hope that exposing this cartel will have some serious consequences.
You are right, certainly not by that amount. It seem that Germany has 19% VAT for beverages compared to 20% in Austria, so not significant.
They have only 7% for some articles like food and we have 10%. Apparently we also have 13% for some articles it seems.
So yeah, you were right about roughly 1-3% difference.
I wonder whether the German "Dosenpfand" plays a role in the Redbull comparison, but I have no idea how that works.
What is for certain is that the Oligopoli is a problem.
I just saw news about Carrefour warning its customers about products showing shrinkflation: https://boingboing.net/2023/09/15/french-supermarket-chain-carrefour-puts-shrinkflation-warnings-on-price-gouging-brands.html
That's a pretty unusual move from a supermarket chain
only a few lettes difference, no surprise.
But you have haver kangaroos and koalas.
Well, and everything else that tries to kill you on an hourly basis.
I'm sorry you have it worse.
my partner, a systems engineer, says this looks like naturally emergent behaviour from a poorly tuned feedback loop, aka @standupmaths story of the $23 million book. It doesn't require obvious collusion, just automated systems monitoring each other with an inbuilt bias to slightly increase prices.
It would be interesting to know the dates the supermarkets started monitoring each others prices.
Guessing they tweaked the global % increase when petrol prices went up, and at least one of the supermarkets turned theirs down when your stuff was reported.
@CuriousMatter they are most often the same. The online stores do not list local products. E.g. our local stores have locally produced donuts that aren't in the Austria wide online store.
Other than such things, it's pretty much the same on- and offline.
I can't speak for the much larger US market I'm afraid.
@MrGamy yes, REWE (Passau), Müller, and DM are only for comparison with Austrian equivalents.
I'm afraid I lack the time to tackle other countries. But I know for a fact that there are very capable developers all around the world that can take my public code and make it work for the stores in their countries. I'm happy to give guidance.
this is interesting. I saw it's quite easy to add stores from other countries, but how difficult would it be to support a different currency?
thinking of adding Spar, Lidl, DM and Muller for Hungary, the problem is they have HUF instead of EUR.
Very happy that I read your thread. I hope someone will pick this up in NL, too. Because shrinkflation and grabflation are widespread here, too.
Anyone in The Netherlands who is willing and able to pickup the initiative Mario started of collecting product price data and showing their price fluctuations through time? Otherwise we keep getting f*d up our tiny a**s by procucers and retailers.
This is what, in business jargon, we like to call "good fucking investigative journalism".
Good bloody job!
good job, well done. I recall that there was a website in the UK that did supermarket price comparisons, but it was shut down via copyright law: the supermarkets licence product images from a third party so when the guy used the same images as the supermarkets to.illustrate the price comparisons, he was threatened by the product image company and forced to shut down.
Excellent thread. The whole inflation thing has been much worse in Hungary, mostly I'd guess the same kind of price gouging (interestingly lidlaldi managed to return to sub 500 HUF prices for a litre of milk on their own - from a ~850 maximum I saw last year) and a whole lot of political and economical mismanagement factors that make up the real gist of the "war inflation" in Orbanistan.
They made a price watcher app, but it's mostly aimed at "the evil foreign multinational corpos"
fantastic work Mario. It set me thinking about how discounts penalise those who most need them when operated in the ways you describe.
Essentially, and I do this, those who can will stock up when a discount happens and rarely have to pay the full price.
But guess who cannot afford to do this, and so pay much closer to what you call the average price.
@happyborg Absolutely true. Here in Austria, the stores have self-branded lowest cost products for this "segment" (what a terrible term).
They don't discount these at all.
Guess which products have significantly increased in price?
Well, thanks for educating me, person from some far away country who does not have to visit Ausschwitz as part of their school education, so they can remember what fucked up shit their grand and grand grand parents did. I too shall start just looking shit up on Wikipedia and make wild comparisons on the interrnet between entirely unrelated things.
Practically the same thing happened in Croatia, only we did get a government-run price tracking site that had no real-world effects.
And we already did know that Croatian products are cheaper outside of Croatia thanks to all of the people that left the country in search of a better life :)
Higher prices, lower wages :)
That's what you get when you have a criminal organization (HDZ) running the country.
But at least you can buy Croatian products for cheap in Austria :)