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Spokespeople for the retailers Billa and Hofer declined WIRED’s request to comment. Nicole Berkmann, a spokesperson for Spar, says the grocery store has supported the Austrian competition regulator with “detailed information” about its prices. However, Berkmann says that “price comparison is a tricky thing” and claims that there are mistakes in “nearly every single price comparison” because there are “thousands of products with different shapes, packages, fillings, qualities, mixtures, and so on.”
“We do not see the usefulness of such a price comparison,” Berkmann says. “Because Austria is a very small country with the highest density of supermarkets in Europe. So as a customer, I just have to walk over the street to find the cheaper retailer. Do the authorities really think that customers spend hours to compare where [products] are cheaper?”
Price transparency and comparison tools are not new. Comparison websites for banking services, shoes, clothing, car insurance, and almost any consumer item have existed for years. Markus Nigl, the CEO of commercial comparison site Geizhals, which has a network operating in Austria, Germany, the UK, and Poland, says that while demand for price comparisons is growing, it isn’t necessarily popular with all retailers.
“Food retailers have not been interested in subjecting their products to a price comparison,” he says. “A price transparency and orientation aid that is helpful for the consumer has, therefore, hardly been possible. Providing meaningful and comparable data in the food sector on a voluntary basis would be very desirable.”
“The fact that individuals were able to build such tools in days, when state regulators take months to investigate, demonstrates the urgent need to make the public administration fit for the digital age,” says Hannes Stummer, a communications manager at Austrian digital rights group Epicenter.works. “We believe that big food retailers should be obliged to make their price information easily accessible in the form of open data. Everybody, including price comparison sites, should be free to use this information.”
Austria’s competition regulator has been paying attention. During the Federal Competition Authority’s ongoing broad investigation, it has questioned 2,200 companies and suppliers, says Abanoub Tadros, a case handler at the authority. While its full report is due later this month, it has already called for more transparency around pricing and said that data should be published by supermarkets.
Tadros says comparison site providers currently face “legal uncertainty” when crawling websites for prices and potential issues around copyright law. “A further problem is that product descriptions are not consistent in the various web shops, and determining price data is also difficult since not all supermarkets provide the necessary technical interfaces (APIs),” Tadros says. “Transparency is a key tool in order to amplify competition among retailers.” However, it is the government’s responsibility to introduce any new measures.
Wolfgang Schneider, the director of economy press and public affairs at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour and Economy, says the government has assessed multiple options around price transparency and has decided not to create a “state comparison tool” after all, due to the emergence of the homegrown efforts. “But it seems to be helpful to provide a general legal framework for the operation of the private tools,” Schneider says. The new “framework” would require supermarkets above a certain size to “make a selection of basic food products’ sales prices available,” Schneider adds, and that “further details will be regulated, as the tool should not merely allow a price comparison, but also give information on quality … to ensure comparability of prices.”
It is unlikely that such a framework would go as far as the number of products already listed by the DIY comparison websites. Zechner, who, along with other comparison site creators, has met with politicians, is rewriting the website’s code but says he doesn’t have any specific plans for it. He will help others who want to use his open source code to build their own comparison systems for other countries, he says.
In recent days, as an indication of how useful the data is to broader society, the Austrian National Library has told Zechner it plans to archive Heisse Preise and its data. “It allows startups to potentially exploit the data commercially,” Zechner says of the website. “It allows scientific institutions to perform macro- and microeconomic studies that hadn’t been possible before, because the data was simply not available. And it would increase competition between grocery stores, as there’s more transparency in terms of price change strategies.”