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How online shops trick you into buying things you don’t need

You’ve probably visited an online store and been told an item is selling out fast.

Or maybe, after adding a pair of jeans to your shopping cart, you were informed that Alex in Caroline Springs bought the same pair along with some white sneakers.

There has been a surge in online shopping in Sydney and Melbourne during the 2021 lockdowns.Credit:

These are just two examples of the “dark patterns” retailers use to trick you into spending more and buying things you don’t need.

As retailers gear up for Boxing Day sales, consumers are being warned to look out for these tactics to protect their bank balances.

Janneke Blijlevens, a consumer behaviour expert at RMIT University, says social proof is a common tactic used by retailers to drive up sales.

“If consumers are made to believe that others think something is a good choice that helps them make a decision quickly, without having to do all the research to come to that conclusion themselves,” she says.

These shortcuts are what behavioural economics researchers call “heuristics”.

After making many decisions over the course of a day, consumers like these shortcuts because they help reduce our cognitive load.

Scarcity is another tactic underpinning the design of many online stores, Dr Blijlevens says. It might involve messages about stock selling out quickly, alerts that there are only two items left in stock or countdown timers.

“If we think it is running out and we might miss out, we tend to jump on something even if it isn’t the best deal. People have a real fear of missing out.”

A busy Australia Post parcel distribution centre.Credit:Nick Moir

Retailers also notice when you are mindlessly scrolling through a website. In an effort to make you more attentive and convert your scrolling into a purchase, a pop-up box might appear that offers a discount for signing up to a brand’s newsletter.

Another tactic called “confirmshaming” might then be used, making a consumer feel guilty if they opt out of offers. This message might appear as: “No, thanks. I’d rather pay full price and miss out on discounts.”

“Marketers draw from psychology in terms of how they design sites and often those stimuli are quite hidden and out of conscious reach of the consumer,” says Paul Harrison, a senior lecturer in marketing at Deakin University.

Dr Harrison says marketers go out of their way to ensure websites are not “sticky”. This might include giving consumers the option of saving their credit card details for their next purchase or by offering free postage.

“The moment the shipping appears, most people go ‘that is an additional cost to what I had calculated’,” he says.

“Free shipping moves people through the process much quicker and translates to a sale in the moment.”

Dr Harrison says a red font is often used because research suggests this colour leads to quicker decisions, while half-shaded “Add to cart” buttons that fill in when a mouse hovers above are also used to drive up sales.

“You get a satisfying positive reaction when you hover over the top of it which means that clicking on it finalises it for us,” he says. “There is some evidence even to suggest that this sense of closure gives us a little burst of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.”

Consumer advocates warn that key sale events like Black Friday and Boxing Day don’t always offer the best discounts.

Consumer group CHOICE recently tracked the prices of four espresso machines and found that Black Friday didn’t offer the best deals, with the appliances selling for less in the six months prior. In some instances, they were up to 33 per cent cheaper in the months preceding the advertised sale period.

“Just because a retailer tells you this is a great time to buy and that something is a special offer, it doesn’t mean it will be the cheapest,” says CHOICE editor Margaret Rafferty.

“They are trying to motivate you to buy. That’s their job.”

Lauren Solomon, the chief executive of the Consumer Policy Research Centre, says consumer protections in bricks and mortar stores are much stronger than those online.

Her organisation is calling for an overhaul of protections, including prohibiting unfair trading practices and a revamp of the Privacy Act.

“In a bricks and mortar shop it’s clear what the sales tactics are, it’s clear what price everyone is being charged and we know we can return items.”

Ms Solomon says this is not the case for online shopping.

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