20 subtle ways shopping sites get you to buy more

Tips & tricks
14 mins

After the December holiday shopping rush and the January sales frenzy, retailers worldwide, both online and in-store, have been shifting their methods to boost consumer spending. These strategies, often subtle and aimed at our impulses, are not new in the retail world but have become increasingly sophisticated.

The winter festive season saw various tactics, from eye-catching sales to exclusive bundles, designed to create urgency and exclusivity. And, as January rolled in, these strategies shifted to leverage the post-holiday craving for bargains—with “New Year, New You” promotions adding to consumer excitement.

With Valentine’s Day and the Lunar New Year approaching—a significant shopping period in Asian markets—retail methods are again evolving. Tapping into the themes of love, renewal, and prosperity, these promotions mix emotional and cultural elements to attract customers with a combination of traditional symbolism and modern marketing.

These strategies play on psychological factors like fear of missing out (FOMO), social proof, and the allure of a good deal. However, there’s a fine line between clever marketing and deceptive practices.

We explore the most common shopping strategies used by retailers to draw in customers, when these methods veer into the realm of deception, and how tools like a VPN router can help you outsmart these tactics to secure better deals.

Jump to…
Why do we overspend?
How shopping sites influence our buying decisions
The dangers of “dark patterns” in online shopping
9 ways to protect yourself from dark patterns
Shopping tricks to secure the best deals online

Why do we overspend?

In the U.S., the trajectory of household debt paints a telling picture. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported the total household debt in the third quarter of 2023 reached 17.29 trillion USD, which includes mortgages, auto loans, student debts, and significantly, credit card balances. The latter saw an increase of 48 billion USD (4.7%) from the previous quarter. 

Despite the economic landscape being filled with caution signs, the American consumer’s spending spirit remains undeterred. But, outside of necessity, what drives us to buy? Retailers have harnessed sophisticated strategies that tap into our impulses, creating a shopping environment that’s hard to resist. 

The psychology of overspending and impulse buying

So why do we spend more even when we don’t necessarily want to or when our bank balance suggests that we shouldn’t? According to experts, the psychology of spending is driven by a mix of emotional, social, and cognitive factors.

  • Emotional triggers: Emotions are powerful drivers of spending. Feelings of happiness, sadness, or even boredom can lead us down the path of “retail therapy.” This emotional spending is a significant factor behind many impulsive purchases.
  • The role of dopamine: Dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked to pleasure, is released during shopping, making it an addictive and often impulsive activity. This “feel-good” factor is a strong motivator for unplanned purchases.
  • Social influences and status symbols: Our spending habits are heavily influenced by social circles and trends. The desire to fit in or keep up with peers can lead to unnecessary spending, often on high-end products that serve as status symbols.
  • Psychological pricing strategies: Retailers use tactics like price anchoring and the decoy effect to influence consumer perception of value and make other options seem more appealing.
  • Emotional advertising and the scarcity principle: Emotional appeals in advertising resonate on a personal level, influencing buying choices. The scarcity principle, where limited availability items are more desired, creates a sense of urgency in purchasing decisions (more on this below).
  • Cognitive biases in spending: Cognitive biases like the sunk cost fallacy and confirmation bias also impact spending. Consumers may continue investing in a product due to previous investments (sunk cost fallacy) or seek information that confirms their beliefs about a product (confirmation bias).

How shopping sites influence our buying decisions 

While understanding our internal triggers is a significant step in identifying why we buy, there’s another layer to this intricate web of consumer behavior: the nuanced strategies employed by online shopping platforms. These methods, often blended subtly within the digital shopping experience, play a pivotal role in guiding our decisions, sometimes even without our conscious awareness. As we pull back the curtain on these tactics, we start to see the full picture of how our online shopping journeys are shaped.

1. Limited stock or availability alerts

Retailers often display “Only X left in stock” messages to instill a sense of urgency. This approach leverages our FOMO and makes items seem more exclusive, prompting faster purchase decisions​​. For example, Amazon and hotel booking sites like Agoda frequently use this tactic, showing limited stock/availability alerts to hasten customer decisions.

2. Countdown timers

These create urgency for limited-time offers. Sometimes a countdown timer is employed even when there is no real-time limit (for instance, if the sale will simply be extended once the time runs out). The tactic plays on the natural human response to scarcity, encouraging customers to act swiftly to avoid missing out. Online retailers often use countdown timers during sales events to drive quick purchases.

3. Real-time purchase data

Displaying messages such as “X people in your area have recently purchased this item” taps into social proof, persuading customers by showing that others are also buying the product​​. Websites like Booking.com use this tactic to show the popularity of hotel rooms, influencing booking decisions.

4. Volume discounts

This strategy offers savings on larger quantity purchases, encouraging consumers to ultimately spend more at the store, possibly on items they wouldn’t have bought otherwise.

5. Cross-sells and upsells 

Suggesting related items and add-ons at checkout can significantly increase average order values. Phrases like “Customers also bought” are common examples of this tactic​​. For example, Apple’s website often employs upselling by suggesting accessories or extended warranties with their products.

6. Downsells

Offering a less expensive option when a customer hesitates can still secure a sale, especially for price-sensitive shoppers. Installment plans for costly items serve as a good example of this strategy. For instance, if a customer balks at paying 3,000 USD upfront for a new fridge, opting for 167 USD monthly installments can appear more manageable and attractive.

7. Push Notifications

These direct alerts about new deals or products can lead to impulse purchases, especially when they are time-sensitive​​. Mobile shopping apps frequently send push notifications to alert customers of special deals or new product launches.

8. The freemium model

Offering basic services for free, with premium features available for an extra cost, can entice users to upgrade after they become accustomed to the service. Spotify’s freemium model, which offers free music streaming and a premium subscription option, is a classic example. Another is YouTube Premium, which allows users to remove annoying advertisements.

9. Member- or cardholder-only sales

Exclusive deals for members create a sense of belonging and exclusivity, thus encouraging more spending​​. Retailers like Sephora offer special discounts and early access to sales for their loyalty program members.

10. Online subscriptions

Retailers use subscriptions to encourage recurring purchases. For example, online supplement stores often provide discounts for monthly subscription orders, while food delivery services like Uber Eats and Deliveroo offer tiers that include free delivery and food discounts. A significant downside of subscriptions is that consumers may continue subscriptions due to habit or oversight, resulting in regular purchases of items they may not necessarily need. 

11. Psychological pricing tricks

Pricing strategies, like setting prices at 9.99 USD instead of 10 USD, leverage customer psychology to boost sales. This approach, widely used in retail, makes products seem less expensive.

12. Individualized marketing

Using customer data to tailor marketing increases promotion effectiveness. Stores like Amazon and Etsy have a recommendation system that personalizes product suggestions based on past purchases and browsing history. 

13. Easy enrollment, hard cancellation

Simplified sign-ups with difficult cancellation processes for subscriptions lead to longer-term customer commitments. Gym memberships often employ this strategy, making enrollment easy but cancellation processes lengthy and complex. This approach draws customers in with free or discounted sign-up offers, creating an initial low barrier to entry while later making it challenging to disengage from the service.

14. Email marketing and retargeting

Targeted emails and retargeting ads on social media help keep retailers top-of-mind, prompting repeat purchases. Retailers use email marketing to remind customers about items they’ve viewed or left in their carts. Some also add countdown timers to cart items, pressuring consumers to complete purchases quickly, thereby stimulating more spending.

15. Product placement

Strategic placement of products, both in stores and online, can entice customers to buy more than they planned​​. A common tactic that brands use is to pay for their products to be featured on TV shows and movies. They also pay social media influencers to use their products in their social media posts, which can significantly influence viewers’ buying decisions. For example, Hero Cosmetics effectively uses TikTok to target its audience.

16. Anchor pricing 

This is when retailers compare the discounted price with the original crossed-out price, creating a perception of a good deal. This method is effective because buyers often rely on initial pricing information for decision-making. Placing a higher-priced item next to a cheaper one also makes the latter more appealing, encouraging purchases of mid-tier products.

17. Recommended and watched products

Displaying items others bought or might buy, along with recommendations based on current selections, often leads to extra purchases. E-commerce sites typically show products recommended or frequently viewed by others, based on a user’s browsing and purchase history.

18. Promo codes

Offering promotional codes for discounts or free items with purchases can stimulate additional spending. Online fashion retailers and online grocery stores frequently use promo codes to entice customers to complete their purchases or spend up to a certain amount.

19. Flash sales

These are time-limited sales events that create urgency and encourage customers to buy quickly. Fast fashion websites like ASOS, Shein, and H&M specialize in flash sales, offering deals on products and services for a limited time.

20. Free shipping perks

Offering free or express shipping for orders above a certain value motivates customers to increase their cart size to qualify. Numerous online fashion, grocery, and food delivery services use this strategy, providing free shipping for orders over a set amount. This often leads consumers to add extra items to their carts, inadvertently spending more to benefit from free shipping. 

The dangers of “dark patterns” in online shopping 

While most of the shopping tactics mentioned above are standard marketing strategies employed by brands worldwide and are relatively harmless, others can be problematic because they’re what’s known as “dark patterns.” These manipulative design techniques are used in online retail to subtly influence consumer behavior, often at the cost of their privacy and autonomy.

What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns refer to UI/UX design strategies that intentionally trick or manipulate users into actions that may not be in their best interests. These include:

  • Sneak into basket: Adding items to your cart without your consent. For example, travel websites might add insurance products automatically during the booking process.
  • Emotional resonance: Misleading you with fake countdown timers and stock warnings, influencing your decision by creating a sense of urgency or scarcity.  
  • Misdirection: Guiding you towards a different action than what you intended. For example, a shopping site might highlight a button to add an item with a donation, making it appear as the primary action and making the option without a donation less conspicuous.
  • Checkbox treachery: This includes confusing opt-in or opt-out checkboxes, where the language used can be misleading or the design can be deceptive. This can lead to you unknowingly consenting to things you might not want, like subscribing to newsletters.
  • Obscured pricing: This involves hiding the full cost of a product or service until late in the purchasing process. An example is an airline not disclosing the cost of adding a bag to a flight until after the ticket is booked.
  • Misinformation: The use of unclear or misleading language in the user interface, which can cause confusion and lead to unintended actions.
  • Confirm-shaming: This is when websites emotionally manipulate users into agreeing to something, like accepting cookies, by making it seem like rejecting the option is a negative action.
  • Forced action: Forcing users to perform an unwanted action to achieve their goal, like taking a survey before they can opt out of data collection.
  • Nagging: Repeatedly asking for consent or agreement to something, usually interrupting the user experience.
  • Obstruction: Deliberately making it difficult to perform a desired action, like opting out of data collection, by slowing down the website or app.
  • Visual interferences: Using design elements to obscure or hide important information or choices from users.

Essentially, dark patterns are the digital equivalent of a salesperson who won’t take no for an answer.

A report by the Federal Trade Commission highlights the rising sophistication of these tactics, emphasizing the need for consumer vigilance​​. This is because these tactics aren’t just about nudging the consumer towards a purchase; they often involve tricking them into giving up personal data or agreeing to unfavorable terms.

When consumer privacy is at stake

One prevalent form of dark patterns is “Privacy Zuckering,” named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This tactic involves getting users to unknowingly share much more personal information than they intended. For instance, a user might agree to certain terms and conditions without realizing the extent of data access they are granting. This kind of dark pattern preys on the fact that most users don’t read the fine print​​.

Research has shown that these tactics are common in online shopping. A study by the University of Chicago found that dark patterns appear on more than 11% of sites.

9 ways to protect yourself from dark patterns

As a consumer, it’s essential to distinguish between legitimate marketing strategies and deceptive dark patterns. While both aim to influence consumer behavior, dark patterns cross the ethical line by obscuring information, misleading users, or restricting their choices.

To combat these manipulative tactics, when shopping online:

  1. Stay informed about dark patterns: Awareness is key. Familiarize yourself with the common types of dark patterns used by online retailers. The more you know about these tactics, the easier it becomes to identify and avoid them.
  2. Read terms and conditions carefully: While often lengthy and complex, reading terms and conditions can save you from unknowingly agreeing to unfair practices or giving away too much personal information.
  3. Check privacy settings regularly: Regularly review the privacy settings on your online accounts. Ensure that you’re only sharing information that you’re comfortable with and that your data is being used in ways you consent to.
  4. Use ad blockers and privacy extensions: Ad blockers—like the one offered on ExpressVPN’s apps and Aircove, our Wi-Fi router—and privacy-focused browser extensions can limit the amount of data collected by websites and reduce exposure to manipulative advertisements and pop-ups.
  5. Be skeptical of urgency tactics: If a deal seems too urgent (like random countdown timers that aren’t linked to a specific event or limited stock alerts), take a step back and consider whether the urgency is real or just a tactic to rush your decision.
  6. Avoid impulse purchases: Give yourself a cooling-off period before making a purchase, especially if it’s an item you hadn’t planned to buy. This can help counteract the impulse buying that dark patterns often aim to trigger.
  7. Use incognito mode for unbiased searches: Shopping in your browser’s incognito or private mode can help prevent your past browsing history from influencing what prices and products you see.
  8. Check for unwanted add-ons in your cart: Before completing a purchase, review your shopping cart to ensure that no additional items or services have been added without your consent.
  9. Be wary of pre-checked boxes: During checkout, watch for pre-checked boxes that might sign you up for newsletters, additional services, or recurring subscriptions.

Shopping tricks to secure the best deals online 

Savvy shopping isn’t just about avoiding tricks retailers use online; it’s also about knowing a few of your own to get the most bang for your buck. With a little know-how, you can turn the tables and make the online shopping experience more rewarding. Here are five tricks to help you snag the best deals:

Leverage a VPN for localized deals

Using a VPN app or VPN router, like those offered by ExpressVPN, can help you access location-specific deals. This is particularly useful for services like airline tickets or hotel bookings, where prices vary based on your browsing location. By changing your virtual location, you can unlock better deals than what’s offered in your actual region.

Check for coupons and promo codes

Before making a purchase, take a moment to search for coupons or promo codes. Websites like RetailMeNot or Honey offer a plethora of discount codes that can be applied at checkout. Some browser extensions automatically search and apply the best coupons for your online purchases.

Sign up for newsletters and loyalty programs

Many online retailers offer exclusive discounts and early access to sales for their newsletter subscribers or loyalty program members. You do run the risk of getting lots of promotion emails or even having your email sold on, so only do this with established, reputable sites. It can be a great way to get a promo code or first dibs on sales.

Abandon your cart strategically

Leave items in your shopping cart and step away for a day or two. Many online stores track this behavior and will send you a reminder email, often with a discount code to encourage a purchase. Just make sure you’re logged in to your account for the store to recognize your cart.

Compare prices across multiple platforms

Don’t settle for the first price you see. Use price comparison tools or manually check multiple websites for the best deal on the product you’re interested in. Sometimes, slight variations in product models or versions can result in significant price differences.

Have an online shopping trick up your sleeve that we didn’t cover? Share your tips in the comments below!

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