The variable prices affected more than half of the company's top-100 best-selling DVDs, or digital versatile discs. Depending on the particular movie and the discount Amazon offered, one customer could pay up to $15 more for a DVD than another customer.
"This is a bad idea," one customer wrote on the popular DVD Talk discussion forum, where the price differences first came to light. "I can see why they'd want to survey what they sell, but this is definitely the wrong way to do it."
Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said the variable prices are part of a pricing test going on in Amazon's DVD department. Smith said the company routinely tests different aspects of its site, including price, to see how its customers will react.
Smith declined to say how long the current test had been going on, saying only that it is ongoing and that it will continue for only a "limited" time. Amazon has not alerted customers about the price test, Smith said.
"They could pay a higher price and not realize it, but they could also pay a lower price and not realize that they paid it," she said.
The flak over the pricing test on DVDs comes just four months after a similar pricing test by Amazon on a popular MP3 player. As with the DVDs, customers affected by the MP3 pricing test expressed anger at the company, saying they felt hoodwinked by the random prices.
Amazon customers on DVD Talk reported that certain DVDs had three different prices, depending on which so-called cookie a customer received from Amazon. Cookies are small files that Web sites transfer to customers' computer hard drives through the browsers they use. These files allow sites to recognize customers and to track their movements and purchases.
One DVD affected by the pricing test was the limited edition version of "Men in Black," which is currently the third best-selling DVD on Amazon. The list price for "Men in Black" is $39.95, but Amazon is offering the DVD for $23.97, $25.97 and $27.97 to different customers.
Meanwhile, the company is offering "The X-Files: The Complete Second Season" for $89.99, $97.49 and $104.99 to different customers. The list price for the DVD is $149.98.
Smith said customers who discover a lower price on an item they have already ordered can ask the company for a refund. But John Dziak, a Los Angeles-based actor, said he ran into problems when he tried to do that.
After he found out about the random pricing, Dziak said he tried to get Amazon to credit him for its best discount, but the company's customer service department refused to acknowledge the variable pricing. Finally, after playing with the settings on his Web browser and placing another call to Amazon, he finally got a small credit on his order.
"You trust a company, then you hear they're doing this kind of stuff, your trust wavers, and you go somewhere else," Dziak said.
But other customers said they saw no problems with Amazon's pricing test. Kansas City, Mo., resident Rick Walz said that while he has been an Amazon customer for about a year, he buys the majority of his DVDs at other online stores. Although Amazon has good customer service, Walz said, he shops around for the best price and said other customers should do the same before they complain about Amazon's prices.
"This doesn't bother me," Walz said. "It's like buying a car; you have the opportunity to look elsewhere. Most people aren't going to do that; most people are lazy."