Online retailers have all sorts of tricks for getting consumers to buy more and buy faster. The people who create those tricks don’t really even try to hide them.
A cursory Google search reveals all sorts of marketers advertising their tools to help merchants boost sales. They boast countdown timers that are “a great way of creating urgency and encouraging shoppers to buy your products” and low stock counters that employ “psychological triggers” to ignite a sense of scarcity and increase sales. Some companies offer sellers tools to show how many people have added an item to their carts, ordered it, or looked at it, and they’re open that these numbers can be real or random — as in, made up.
A travel website tells you there are only three hotel rooms left at a certain price ahead of your next vacation, or an e-commerce platform tells you that you only have 10 minutes to buy that dress in your shopping cart. Sellers and marketers know that fomenting a sort of fear of missing out will indeed push you to act, whether or not it’s true. The same goes for showing ratings and reviews, for marking something as a top seller, for indicating someone else in your network bought the same item before. Sometimes what you’re being shown is real, sometimes it’s not, and oftentimes, it’s impossible to know what’s actually the case.
“It’s kind of buyer beware,” said Harry Brignull, a user experience expert who has tracked deceptive design, often referred to as “dark patterns,” for more than a decade and is currently working on a book on the matter.
Recode’s Sara Morrison did a full explainer on dark patterns in 2021 that I would highly encourage you to read, but essentially, they’re design tactics that are meant to push users in certain directions. Say, when you go to sign up for a free trial and don’t notice there’s a box already checked to renew at a charge, or a pop-up ad that appears where the “close” button is almost impossible to find. For our current purposes, I’m going to focus on dark patterns as they apply to online shopping — the ways sellers and websites get you to buy more, buy quicker, and maybe not think about the whole charade too much. Very rarely is something actually scarce on the internet, save, for example, Taylor Swift tickets.
“If everyone’s doing it and no one’s being fined, it would be kind of stupid of [businesses] to not do it,” Brignull said. “The use of deceptive design is a rational decision by companies who are just trying to be profitable.”
That profit can come at the expense of a decision that was, perhaps, a little more impulsive than the consumer would have liked.
A quick look at the psychology of online shopping
The vast majority of the purchasing decisions we make are subconscious, meaning we’re not fully aware of what’s driving our actions. Marketers have mountains of tactics to play into that and into our cognitive biases, or tendencies in our thinking that don’t entirely add up with logic or objective reason. “All of those little cognitive nudges play into biases that we have, and we usually don’t even know that they worked,” said Jason Goldberg, commerce strategy officer at advertising firm Publicis.
Social proof is a powerful motivator; people trust and copy the actions they believe have been taken by others. In the online shopping space, that translates to wanting to buy things because they have ratings and reviews, questions and answers, and the appearance of being a high-velocity seller or popular on social media and among peers. Goldberg said ratings and reviews, specifically, are among the top correlations to sales of new products — and the amount of reviews can make more of a difference in sales than whether those reviews are good or bad, because people are inclined toward things they see as popular. “A 4.3-star thing with 10,000 reviews is going to star much better than a 3.3-star thing with 10,000 reviews, but a 3.3 thing with 10,000 reviews might sell quite a bit better than a 4.0 thing with six reviews,” Goldberg said. Quality of the reviews is important, but quantity still wins. Fake reviews are also a persistent problem.
People are driven by value and the belief they’re getting a deal, including if they think they’re on a tight timeline to get said deal. That’s part of why shopping events such as Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday work — scarcity marketing lets consumers know those sales won’t be there forever. (It’s worth noting that multiple experts I spoke to for this story told me that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are indeed not the days that offer the best deals, economically.)
Over the years, e-commerce companies have gotten better and better at getting consumers to spend. They’ve reduced frictions, making it easier to buy in a click or two, and identified countless ways to make people feel like if they don’t buy immediately they’ll miss out. Marketers also know that once they have you in the virtual door and have your information on hand, it will make it easier to sell to you in the future. “Customer lifetime value is a real thing that people spend a lot of time thinking about,” said Jeremy King, senior vice president and head of engineering at Pinterest. “How do I get that first sale so that I can market to you forever?”
A dark pattern is kind of in the eye of the beholder (also nobody is really paying close attention anyway)
What counts as a dark pattern and what is just smart marketing sort of depends on who you ask. One person’s dark pattern might count as another person’s helpful user interface (though that latter person might be a seller). Generally, the line falls in what’s true and what’s a lie. “Any time you’re not honest, it’s a dark pattern,” said Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “If you’re honest, I think that’s just showcasing the attributes of the product.”
In September, the FTC released a report on dark patterns that included a number of e-commerce tactics that count, including false activity messages (saying a certain number of people are viewing a product at the same time), false low stock messages, and “baseless” countdown timers that just go away and reset. In a statement at the time, the regulator said the report was meant to highlight its efforts to “combat the use of dark patterns in the marketplace” and reiterate its “commitment to taking action against tactics designed to trick and trap consumers.”
That all sounds very nice, but every expert I spoke to for this story said there’s little downside for sellers to use these kinds of deceptive design tactics and dark patterns, whether they’re lying or not. Chances are, they won’t get in trouble.
“My goodness, the FTC doesn’t have the resources to prosecute things that are major violations of health care law — the last thing they’re going to focus on is e-commerce,” Kodali said.
“Fake pricing is illegal most places, fake scarcity is not very illegal,” Goldberg said.
“The risk is low, the cost is low if you do get caught, and then the profit margin on these things is high,” Brignull said.
If sellers are really concerned about getting into hot water, there are ways to fudge it on urgency and scarcity anyway. Sure, maybe that’s the last hotel room available for $100 a night, but there are 10 more available at $101.
Don’t shop drunk (and other tips to avoid e-commerce traps)
The fact of the matter is that e-commerce companies and marketers are very, very good at getting us to buy stuff. I like to think I’m a relatively savvy shopper, and reporting for this story was the first time I realized those little notifications telling me 15 people or whatever are looking at the same vacation package as me online might not be true.
There are some countertactics consumers can employ to try to avoid getting tricked.
Just like you shouldn’t go to the grocery store hungry, you shouldn’t shop online when you’re in a hurry. Put something the cart and let it sit there for a day and then decide if you still need it. (To be sure, an email might very well appear in your inbox reminding you the item is still there, this time with a 10 percent discount or a time limit, trying to push you to buy.) It’s always helpful to comparison shop to make sure you’re actually getting the deal you think you are. Goldberg also noted to avoid shopping when you’re in a, say, altered state. “There’s a shocking amount of e-commerce that happens after the bars close on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said.
In terms of ensuring product quality, you have to do your homework, Kodali said, and recognize you might not be able to trust all the reviews you see. “There are some expert resources for certain categories, like Consumer Reports for durable goods. I like Wirecutter for a lot of random products,” she said.
King, who’s also spent time at eBay and Walmart, pointed out that the best prices don’t necessarily come around Black Friday or Cyber Monday but instead when e-commerce companies are trying to clear out their warehouses. “That’s where you can find some incredible deals,” he said.
Still, to a certain extent, it’s impossible to avoid all online shopping traps all the time — there’s a reason they work. Knowing what to look out for helps, but only for a limited time, because again, most purchasing decisions you’re making subconsciously.
“You can’t expect people to always give their best. It’s very easy to pull basic tricks on people,” Brignull said. “It’s like slipping on ice — it’s going to catch some people.”
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
Sign up to get this column in your inbox.
Have ideas for a future column or thoughts on this one? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.