Free play will come in for a lot of attention at this month’s Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi, and for good reason. With 12 casinos, many of which draw substantially from a population base of about 250,000 from Pascagoula to Pass Christian, the Gulf Coast is one of the toughest markets in the country. No surprise that many operators have turned to free play as a way to get people through their doors. No surprise either that this dependency has put pressure on profits.

“It’s a necessary evil, especially when you’re in a market like this and everyone’s using it,” said Bill Fishman, director of slot operations at Palace Casino Resort, when I interviewed him on the topic a few months ago. “In the current economy, the vast majority of our players are value seekers and free play gives them the opportunity to extend their time at device and overall length of stay at the property. I’m sure some of the larger operators have a little bit more leeway than a privately-owned casino. One thing we talk about is high-frequency players; they’re already coming to your property, so why give them as much as you are? I’m really afraid to reduce their offers for fear that they’re going to abandon us because it is such a highly competitive market. There is no loyalty; everyone’s out for the best offer they can get.”

The textbook response to free play is simple: beware. Avoid straight price competition and focus on communicating value by building unique, one-to-one relationships with players, matching the power of all your property assets to your understanding of their personal needs. There is a lot of truth to this advice, but there’s still the problem of waking up with the daily pressure of how to respond to competitors who are being more generous than you and winning customers as a result. Players shop, pure and simple, and now technology is there to help them.

Consider the phenomenon of price surfing at brick-and-mortar stores and apps that enable consumers to scan barcodes and price check on-site. In a typical pre-holiday season article last November, PC Mag listed the 10 best shopping apps to compare prices, an impressive array of snooping and scooping that turns every consumer into a potential profit margin destroyer. That these capabilities are coming to the fore in a challenging economy seems an even crueler joke, but there it is.

Price surfing is interesting to consider in the context of the potential growth of online gaming as a cheaper alternative to the brick-and-mortar product. With online gaming presently mostly limited to poker in a handful of states, it might seem hopelessly premature to draw amazon.com-type comparisons, but, then again, six years ago, nobody knew what Facebook was. Assume the worst, mobilize accordingly, and you’ll be in the best possible shape. In the technology era, the future tends to arrive sooner than you want it to.

That means answering the question that Bryan Kelly of Bally Technologies answers so well in this month’s community games feature: How will brick-and-mortar casinos stay relevant in an online world? His answer is the excitement of the floor-wide event, which helps explain why so many people are willing to pay so much more to attend sporting events than they used to: The TV works, but there’s nothing like being there. In most gaming markets, people have freedom of choice, after all. There can be no better strategy for brick-and-mortar operators than to make that choice as compelling as possible, and price should only be a part of that.