Dell's Website Prices Are Based On Caprice And Whimsy

Reader Tom noticed something weird as he was checking out Dell’s online store: Dell’s website can’t seem to get its facts straight and keeps spitting out different prices for the same computer. So Tom ran a test in which he accessed Dell’s website with two separate computers, using the same browser, login info, and navigation process. He checked the prices for Dell’s Vostro system on their Small Business Desktops Dell Deals page, as well as their Vostro page. As you can see, there were some anomalies.

Tom said he “tried to control all the variables: Same date/time, same browser, same external IP address, same Dell login, same navigation process (>Small Business Desktops>Dell Deals) & (>Small Business Desktops>Vostro), and exact same visible URLs.” Here are screenshots from the Dell Deals page: as you can see (with some squinting), there is a sizable difference between the dual-panel Vostro system. Computer 1:delldeals1.jpg
Computer 2:
Next, Tom tried to check the price on the dedicated Vostro page. Again, the prices were different. Computer 1:
Computer 2:
Pretty bizarre. Do any of our helpful Dell-employed readers have an explanation for this?


Edit Your Comment

  1. Thanatos- says:

    Wow over a $100 dollars difference on some that is crazy!

  2. darundal says:

    I find this one hard to believe, somehow, although assuming that this is true, I wonder if it always give him the same prices on the same computer (the one you browsed from) or were there different prices from the same computer different times he got on?

  3. vastrightwing says:

    I know students at MIT familiar with a research project where DELL is a sponsor. They are trying to predict behavior and decide who is likely to buy and who is not. The web page will change depending on what the predictive engine thinks the person on the other end of the browser is likely to do. It can and will change not only the price, but the content as well. This is no joke. This is actually happening.

  4. captbob says:

    Not a Dell employee, but I think this is to test offerings at various price points.

    Believe it or not, some products sell better at high price points rather than low price points. I suspect this is random, time-limited test to figure out how effective various price points are at generating profits.

  5. BigElectricCat says:

    Dude, you’re getting a Dell?

  6. redragon104 says:

    Well i guess there acting like scummy car dealers then… i guess it pays check more than once

  7. Thanatos- says:

    I wish when i went to Dell they took $100 off their stuff automatically, then i might actually buy something there :D

  8. vastrightwing says:

    Here is a link to an abstract on my assertion:
    Customer Retention at Dell Using Data Mining
    Professor Dimitris Bertsimas
    Sponsor: Dell Computer Corporation
    In this research we study the problem of retention of prospective customers that visit a web site using data mining techniques. Current data suggest that retention rates are extremely low, yet web sales represent a significant portion of corporate revenues. Hence, improving the retention rate is a problem of undeniable importance. We propose to partition the study into three areas.
    (1) Classifying customer’s behavior using data mining methods from click stream data. (2) Development of behavioral models that explain the clusters found in Part 1. (3) Control mechanisms to improve customer retention. The goal is to understand and influence how customer interest can be converted to purchase.

  9. darundal says:

    @captbob: Not hard to believe at all. The higher price point makes the product seem to be of higher quality, higher value, or more powerful.

  10. costanza007 says:

    you gotta look for the pre-configured support options… they always mess up the starting prices

  11. Siegeman says:

    Another thing to note about is that when you select different hardware packages for the same model, clicking “customize it” to bring each option to have the exact same hardware, never gives you the same price.

    So you could purchase two identical devices, for different prices, just based on the layout of the website.

  12. @vastrightwing: So if you come back a second time to the page, you’re judged as more ready to buy than the first time you were there. My suggestion is to dump your cookies and try a third time to see if the lower prices come back.

  13. zgori says:

    I certainly hope that Professor Dimitris Bertsimas isn’t using any federal grant money to study how to rip people off.

  14. Kos says:

    When I went to buy my Dell desktop 4 years ago, I found that the prices for the same computer were HIGHER after I put in my company’s Employee Purchase Program number. Thought it was weird back then.

  15. vastrightwing says:

    I’m going to create a and it will crawl all over to simulate a user clicking all over the website adjusting its behavior such that the prices eventually go to zero. Then it will generate a list of links to click on in the proper order so everyone can get free stuff!

  16. scoosdad says:

    @vastrightwing: Sort of brings to mind the old late night TV ads for all kinds of sleazy stuff:

    “NOW how much would you pay???”

  17. GenXCub says:

    I was attempting to get to both screens to see if the underlying hardware is the same, but I cannot seem to find the vostro page at $824, I can only find the $699. Perhaps old cache?

  18. GenXCub says:

    the problem with the screenshots is it would be great if it included the navigation information that is closer to the top of the screen with all the > symbols.

  19. Shadowman615 says:

    Yeah, dell is not 100% consistent with pricing. I bought a desktop from them in 2003, and priced out quite a few different configurations. I found you could start with 2 different “base systems,” but configure both to have identical specs when all was said and done, and often have at least a $100 difference in price between the two.

    Also, they run a different special every week, whether it be on shipping or simply a dollar amount off based on total price, so it’s hard to compare prices week to week.

    So it’s worth it to do your homework before buying there.

  20. billbillbillbill says:

    When buying from Dell, check the home user prices, small business prices, etc. They are all different. I saved $200 on a monitor by buying from the home instead of small business section.

  21. Aph says:

    Wait.. why would I buy a Dell?

  22. FLConsumer says:

    This definitely is true. Whenever I have to buy a laptop from Dell, I’m forced to browse using the various discount programs my company has, then I go back in as a regular joe blow. Quite often I get the best price going in as Small Business, no discount programs…. then I call up my Dell rep and bitch until they’re willing to undercut that price.

  23. dreamcatcher2 says:

    I would have thought more consumerist readers would be familiar with this practice from their deal-hunting :-) When buying from Dell, you have to check everything from multiple angles, as they employ differential pricing. This has been going on for years.

  24. rawsteak says:

    here’s a crazy idea…

    maybe people who still use IE explorer are more willing to buy expensive dells than firefox users… that would be the only difference i can tell. i can’t say for sure, but lets just say people who download firefox are a little more tech savvy than IE users, which means to an IE user, if it’s shiny enough and it sounds good, why not pay the price?

    or is this too much conspiracy theory? i’m just trying to spot the differences…

  25. rawsteak says:

    the only difference between the screens is that one of them uses firefox (cheaper price) and the other uses internet explorer (more expensive price)

    so maybe IE users are more like to pay for something shiny than firefox users, who are more tech savvy (maybe?)

    or is that too much of a conspiracy theory? i’m just trying to spot differences…

  26. rawsteak says:

    sorry for dbl post, didn’t see my first comment :(

  27. Juggernaut says:

    .@Siegeman: Just last week I was attempting to buy a server on Dell’s Small Business site. They were advertising 35% off on selected servers, including the model I was building. As I add on they have a running total which eventually shows discounts of $957 on a $2800 purchase (est.) When I clicked purchase the discounts changed to $750. Much like Tom, I tried several of their sites(not simultaneously) but kept getting screwed out of the full discount… screw Dell and their computers

  28. ideagirl says:

    They have been doing this for years. When I used to order from Dell (years ago), I would always check the pricing from multiple IPs and browsers, then lock in the one with the lowest price. The difference was very often a few hundred dollars, just like in your example.

  29. dugn says:

    This is another non-news item. Different Dell divisions run their own specials and deals – which accounts for the exact machine in the Small Business division selling for a different price than one in Home User.

    In this case, it’s predictive and supply-side adjustments within a single division (Small Business). This is nothing new and it’s nothing earth-shattering like the falsehoods of Best Buy having an ‘internal’ web site with higher prices than the real external web site.

    These complain-about-something-before-the-first-bit-of-research-on-the-topic posts on an otherwise great site are starting to get tedious.

  30. JohnMc says:

    Dell has used market segment pricing for years online. They have had a different price for consumer/SMB/Large Biz for a very long time. What is not generally known is that you can say you are a big business get a slightly better deal for the same product.

    Also, Dell will offer pricing discounts to individuals if they purchase thru their company at whatever the company has negotiated as a discount. Talk to the HR dept and see if they have a Dell discount code. The webpage will honor it and adjust pricing.

  31. @Siegeman: Yep I just purchased a dell from their Canadian website and even if it’s the exact same model but just different presets your options will restricted, often forcing you to purchase more ram or giving you only options for the worst and best of a system component.

  32. iMe2 says:

    A couple weeks ago I was looking at ordering a laptop on Dell. On the 27th I configured an XPS for $2,600 and saved the cart in my account. The next day the same configuration was over $4,000. Needless to say I didn’t end up buying the computer.

  33. heavylee-again says:

    I have only one thing to say to this thread,

    Yeah! Duh!”

  34. NikoPico says:

    Don’t forget, when you go to customize, remember to check the warranty details. Sometimes with a cheaper model, you get 90 days warranty, and the more expensive one gets 1 – 3 years added.

  35. stacye says:

    I tried this on one computer, and got a similar result as the OP got(although I used 3 different browsers).
    Prices on Vostro 400 Mini Tower
    IE: $699
    Firefox: $699
    Safari: $824

    I’m on a Windows XP Pro.

  36. elf6c says:

    Variable pricing, horrible service, layoffs galore and mediocre bloatware filled computers- how can you lose?

  37. stacye says:

    Oh, and every browser takes me to the SAME EXACT PAGE:


  38. StevieD says:

    Way too many factors.

    Besides the $999 less discount of $200 = $799, Dell will sell the same identical computer for $799 without any discounts. The landed costs are the same but the one unit appears to be “on-sale”.

    Then there are different servers providing the web content. I know Dell’s update starts on Wednesday night, but the web servers are updated on a rolling update that can several hours to complete. (yes, they really do have that many web servers in operation).

    Different segments. log-in’s versus not logged-in etc.

  39. jimconsumer says:

    This is really par for the course with Dell. I’ve seen similar issues time and time again. Also, prices for the exact same system can be dramatically different depending on whether you access the consumer section of the site vs. the small business section, which any consumer can purchase from anyway.

  40. ncboxer says:

    A lot of times with Dell they will have different configured products depending on various factors like whether you are accessing it from the home division or small business division. So some model computer will list with different prices because it has different components as “standard” in them. You can usually go into the customization page and make all the options the same and come up with the same price. Sometimes, though, they don’t allow certain options, so there is no way to match the prices.

    They also offer sales all the time, so it gets confusing. It is a good idea if you want a Dell to get to the product various ways, including looking at online coupon sites.

  41. syntheticlogic says:

    When I was shopping for a laptop to replace my stolen one it seemed like everytime I refreshed the page the price was different. Over the course of a week the price fluctuated several hundred dollars for the exact same specs ordered through their premier site (Higher Education portal). When I called Dell on the phone to ask about a feature, the agent couldn’t even get the same price I was staring at my screen at online.

    Eventually when I decided to buy the computer, between the time I added it to my shopping cart and I entered my credit card info the discount went from $299 off to $799 off with no warning. If I had been 5 minutes earlier I would have paid $500 more.

    I’m convinced Dell gets their prices from the phase of the moon and the position of the planets in the stars.

    That said, the 4 or so non-custom, pre-specced systems we have with Dell are an incredible deal and the prices are rock solid (at least until we negotiate another spec).

  42. u1itn0w2day says:

    Can’t stand Dell or HP websites,they’re slow, they drag you through the process.ONE time I got a decent offer with Dell over the phone.I also notice bundles are getting tougher to find-choice is one thing but shopping online or at Dell many are looking to control cost.

    One thing I noticed over years that late spring seems to be the best time to buy.Tax season and school will be over and they will want to clear out for back to school.

  43. midwestkel says:

    Sounds like they use the same software that and…

  44. Bladefist says:

    the real wtf is they are buying a dell…ooops wrong site

  45. jswilson64 says:

    Wait until you check the government contract price for the exact same computer – it’s always a LOT more. When I worked for the Fed. government, we would buy buy off-contract with credit card or P.O. tied to non-govt funds, then get that account reimbursed, saving the taxpayers about $250 per computer.

    You’re welcome.

  46. brent_w says:

    @Shadowman615: Oh yeah.

    When I got my M1330 I noticed that if you start with the most expensive option and the cheapest option.

    And then “customize them” to the exact same specs.

    The most expensive option turned out to be a few hundred dollars cheaper than the cheap option.

  47. President Beeblebrox says:

    My wife and I just got a catalog from them offering “free shipping & handling”. The day we got the catalog, we placed an order for a computer for my mother-in-law, which we had planned to do for some time.
    Yet, when placing the order online at, the so-called free shipping was nowhere to be found, nor was the code on the catalog accepted for free shipping. So, before completing the order online, we called Dell to redo the order manually to see if they would give us the free shipping that way. The CSR claimed no such offer existed even after my wife read it to him verbatim right from the catalog. Finally he relented as a “courtesy”. Yeah, it was a pain, but worth saving the $19.99 or whatever the frack they were going to charge us.

    Dude, it’s a Dell?

  48. PaigeAtDell says:

    Full disclosure: I work at Dell.

    It looks like Tom is viewing a beta test we’re running on the website re: Vostro pricing. The way it works is a random sample of Dell shoppers see the beta test vs. our standard Website, which allows us to gather real-time customer feedback before we make broader pricing or promotion moves. For this specific test, we’re looking at a simplified pricing approach on Vostro desktops and will use the results to make customer-driven decisions on future Vostro pricing and promotions. Our overall goal is to make it easier for customers to find the best pricing on Vostro when they come to our website. Hope this makes sense and thanks for bringing your questions to our attention.

  49. cyborg5001 says:

    This is actually a fairly common thing. If I plan on buying something from dell, I check the price in multiple ways. First through the home/home office page, then small buisiness, and if I have one of their catalogs, there too. Sometimes the items are in all three sections all at different prices.
    As far as I can tell its been that way for a very long time.
    It could also be a slight configuration change, different video card or more warranty coverage.

  50. Coder4Life says:

    I have noticed this type of behaviors by too. Also it’s weird how dell will charge on some computers differnet upgrade prices.

    upgrade from 19in to 20in. Some it will be like $50, some it will be $30. They seem to do this a lot.

  51. azzy says:

    @PaigeAtDell: Wow, Paige. As much as I want to believe you, your test seems to be the exact opposite way to “make it easier for customers to find the best pricing on Vostro when they come to our website.”

  52. etelford says:

    Using this URL:

    In both Firefox and Safari revealed different prices.

    After getting to that page, I clicked the “Choose Vostro” button (the left hand side system). In FF, the first browser I tested, the starting price came up as $249. Without going further I then clicked the same button in Safari where I saw a starting price of $299.

    I clicked to customize both and the first screen I saw is for customizing the processor. In FF (where the base price is $249) the dual-core E2160 can be added for $20. In Safari, the same processor can be added for $40.

    The other interesting thing is that the two different browsers reveal different customization options. In FF, besides the default processor, I can choose between:

    – Intel® Pentium® Dual-Core E2160 (1.80GHz, 1MB L2 Cache, 800FSB) [add $20]
    – Intel® Pentium® Dual-Core Proc E2180 (2.00GHz,1MB L2Cache,800FSB) [add $40]
    – Intel® Coreâ„¢2 Duo Proc E8200 (2.66GHz, 6MB L2 Cache, 1333FSB) [add $120]

    In Safari, my options are:
    – Intel® Celeron® Processor 440 (2.00GHz, 800FSB) [add $40]
    – Intel® Pentium® Dual-Core E2160 (1.80GHz, 1MB L2 Cache, 800FSB) [add $50]
    – Intel® Pentium® Dual-Core Proc E2180 (2.00GHz,1MB L2Cache,800FSB) [add $100]

    So, the E2180 can be added for $40 on the less expensive identical system, but you have to pay a hefty $100 on the more expensive system. What a ripoff.

    I’m surprised this is actually legal. Not that Dell can’t change their price, but seeing different prices while viewing these virtually at the exact same time is just wrong.

  53. Pro-Pain says:

    This is really, well, uncool…

  54. Swervo says:

    My old company used a piece of software specifically for this called “Offermatica”. It let you set up different campaigns based on arbitrary rules, or just randomly. They can have a different set of price lists and, it sounds like, didn’t bother to tie them to login names.

    It’s one of those things companies love to do to determine what the best price is for maximizing revenue until they get caught, then everyone who was charged the higher prices gets pissed.

  55. Consumer007 says:

    LOL, I decided to get the ‘inside’ story from one of Dell’s very own sales chat people! meet BE_Rep_Rhea A!

    Copy Print Exit
    4:30:54 PM System You are now being connected to an agent. Thank you for using Dell Chat
    4:30:55 PM System Connected with BE_Rep_Rhea_A
    4:31:04 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Welcome to Dell’s Inspiron Sales Chat! I hope you are doing well and thank you for waiting. My name is Rhea and I’ll be your personal sales agent. How may I help you with your purchase today?
    4:31:24 PM Nunya Biz hi – i’d like to know the meaning of this article please. []
    4:31:42 PM Nunya Biz why is this going on?
    4:31:44 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Hi Nunya.
    4:31:59 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A I am sorry but I cannot pull up the link that you provided.
    4:32:04 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A What does it says on that web site?
    4:32:07 PM Nunya Biz do you have web?
    4:32:29 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A yes,but I am limited for Dell web site online.
    4:33:04 PM Nunya Biz basically your website is spitting out random prices on your computers every few minutes or less
    4:33:35 PM Nunya Biz so which prices are actually correct?
    4:34:01 PM Nunya Biz the least expensive or the most expensive?
    4:34:34 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Prices and promotions do actually change weekly.
    4:34:44 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Promotions usually end on Wednesdays and change on Thursdays.
    4:34:49 PM Nunya Biz no, they change minute to minute as the article describes
    4:35:05 PM Nunya Biz not unlike many travel websites
    4:35:30 PM Nunya Biz so how do I know at any given time the price I see is the correct price?
    4:35:34 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Oh please be advised that it is not true.
    4:35:39 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A It depends on the promotions.
    4:35:47 PM Nunya Biz well you can’t read the article so how do you know it’s true?
    4:35:59 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A it will be best that you get the system from Dell web site to make sure that you get the same price as recommended.
    4:36:09 PM Nunya Biz that’s the website I’m talking about
    4:36:44 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A It’s because we know the promotions offer at our web site.
    4:36:53 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Please be reminded that promotions and prices change in a weekly basis.
    4:37:14 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A But it depends on availability of the promotions as offer.
    4:37:18 PM Nunya Biz specifically in this case []
    4:37:41 PM Nunya Biz no they change every few minutes as the article describes
    4:38:05 PM Nunya Biz who is in charge of your website pricing please?
    4:38:24 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A It will be best if you experience it not to relate with the article.
    4:38:34 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A It will be our Marketing department.
    4:38:49 PM Nunya Biz why would the article writer lie? he includes screenshots in the article to prove it.
    4:39:13 PM Nunya Biz could i have the contact information not just a department name please?
    4:39:14 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A I am sorry please double check the link that you provided.
    4:39:27 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A It says “The page you requested may no longer exist on “..
    4:39:27 PM Nunya Biz the link to the article?
    4:39:53 PM Nunya Biz Oh sorry, yes that is a very long link, but you can find it in the article on your manager’s computer if they are allowed internet
    4:40:15 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A I am sorry but I do not have the direct number of our Marketing department. I am more than willing to assist you, however, Dell Customer Care will be able to best address your concern regarding the article.
    4:40:15 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A You can contact them by going to or by calling 1-800-879-3355 ext. 7266966.
    4:40:24 PM Nunya Biz or if you were bored tonight when you go home, you could look it up if you have dial up
    4:40:45 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Yes, I will check on the link that you provided when I go home.
    4:40:48 PM Nunya Biz do they have dial up internet service in India?
    4:40:48 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Would there be anything else I may help you with asides from this concern, Nunya?
    4:41:05 PM Nunya Biz Do you live near Bombay?
    4:41:17 PM Nunya Biz or closer to sri lanka?
    4:41:19 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A I am sorry I am currently in the US.
    4:41:28 PM Nunya Biz oh which territory?
    4:41:44 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A We do not have access on India web site of Dell.
    4:42:01 PM Nunya Biz it’s the american site i’m referring to
    4:42:14 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Yes, I understand your concern.
    4:42:29 PM Nunya Biz okay well thanks for the phone number. if you aren’t allowed to know what’s going on on your own website maybe they will
    4:42:44 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A however, we do not have a phone number or chat service available for India.
    4:42:51 PM BE_Rep_Rhea_A Thank you for contacting Dell Sales Chat. We appreciate your business.
    4:42:53 PM System BE_Rep_Rhea_A has left this session!
    4:42:53 PM System The session has ended!

  56. lemur says:

    @PaigeAtDell: Paige, you may have an explanation for Tom’s specific case but inconsistent pricing is par for the course on Dell’s web site.

    Since you work at Dell, let me add a bit of a rant here. I’ve owned 3 Dell laptops but my fourth one which I bought last summer was not a Dell. One of the reasons for this was precisely the insane and inconsistent pricing on Dell’s web site. I grew tired of having to price the same configuration in six different ways to be sure to find the best price I could get. I grew tired of Dell’s system of mutually exclusive rebates (e.g. they blast rebate A and rebate B in your face but both are not applicable together). I grew tired that every time I ordered something I felt like there was probably some way I could have gotten a better price if I had just clicked here instead of there or there instead of here or if the barometric presure had been different or if there had been more solar activity or some other obscure reason.

    I decided to buy my current laptop somewhere where I felt they would give me a straight answer when I asked for pricing instead of BS’ing me.

  57. MercuryPDX says:

    @stacye: Following your links I see the Vostro 400 for $449 in both IE and FF (Also on Win XP).

  58. Xerloq says:

    I recently priced a computer for my parents through I checked Dell Home, Education, and SMB sites and got 9 different prices, three each. I found that even though I ended up on the same URL, the prices seemed to differ based on the referrer link.

    But I’d rather buy into the sneaky MIT robot overlord project.

  59. wesrubix says:

    @costanza007: I think costanza is right.

    Moreover, the user is looking at different URLs. Therefore you cannot assume the prices will be the same, especially since one is pretexted as “Dell deals” whereas the other is the plain Vostro site.

    Invalid and incomplete analysis.

  60. midwestkel says:

    @Consumer007: You were pretty much a dick the way you talked to them.

  61. dugn says:

    Stop the insanity.

    The SAME machine will appear with DIFFERENT PRICES. The browser isn’t the issue. Dell’s site is deliberately doing this. How many people have to say the same thing and ‘experiment’ with different browsers on this thread before it stops?

    100 monkeys + 100 typewriters + 100 years = all the great works of Shakespeare? This thread (and the internet in general) proves this false.

  62. royboyjohnboy says:

    I figured it out… It looks like the link from -> Small Business Desktops ->Dell Deals; Vista Basic is the OS. On -> Small Business Desktops -> Vostro; Windows XP Home is the OS. All else remains the same. Also, you have more options to choose from on the Dell Deals webpage. Weird. Not usual though… R~

  63. LUV2CattleCall says:


    Bose comes to mind.

  64. JustaConsumer says:

    I am telling you, Dell SUCKS. Do not buy a Dell. You will be sorry. They are cheap pieces of crap.

  65. redoregon says:

    I have an even better one. Bring up the Dell site ( [] )in two tabs in FireFox. Using the “IE Tab” plugin, change one of the two tabs to identify itself to the Dell web servers as being IE. Now go through the customize process for a system, selecting the exact same options on both tabs.

    Bingo! Different prices, using the SAME BROWSER, SAME IP, and virtually at the SAME TIME! Wild…

  66. anatak says:

    different prices, but are the products configured the same?

  67. daisukeumon says:

    Doesn’t the weights and measures system come into this?

  68. freejazz38 says: does the same thing. Has for years and it’s well documented. Put something in your cart, and watch the fun!