Have you ever noticed the subtle ways your grocery store tries to get you to spend as much as possible? In the aisles, the most expensive products are strategically stocked at eye level. The staple goods are inconveniently located in the very back of the store, forcing you to walk past hundreds of products you probably don’t need just for a gallon of milk. And the most tempting products — glossy magazines and candies — line both sides of the checkout line.
These little psychological tricks are designed to get consumers to spend more — without even thinking about it.
Online stores have the same goal. Although they can’t use exactly the same strategies, digital marketers have devised a wide variety of ways to nudge customers toward overspending. The user-experience consultant Harry Brignull dubbed these strategies “dark patterns,” referring to subtle design features on websites that prey on our psychology to nudge us toward overspending.
Some of these patterns are subtle, while others are more in your face. Knowing how to identify them can help you keep your budget intact.
Common digital marketing tricks
Here are some of the most common dark patterns you’ll want to recognize while shopping online.
- Confirmshaming uses language that makes consumers feel guilty if they don’t opt into something. For example, say you’re shopping online and get a pop-up notification offering a 10% discount if you subscribe to an email list. It presents two options: one to sign up, and another that says something like, “No thanks, I prefer to pay full price.” That second option is meant to elicit a sense of shame or guilt.
- Countdown timers are designed to put pressure on the consumer. If you don’t act fast, you’ll lose out on the deal! This tactic leverages time scarcity to push shoppers into spending more.
- Subscription offers dangle a lower price if the consumer signs up for recurring orders. Amazon’s Subscribe & Save program is a great example. Instead of buying a pack of paper towels once today, you can save 5% if you set up a subscription. And the more purchases you automate, the more you can save.
- Limited-time deals are similar to countdown timers in that both use the idea of time scarcity. Failing to act means neglecting a great deal. This plays on our natural fear of missing out.
- Buy-now-pay-later options allow shoppers to break up their payment into smaller, interest-free installments that are typically paid over several weeks. Instead of paying $100 today, how about $25 a week over the next month? That setup can certainly entice shoppers. A 2021 Credit Karma survey found that 44% of respondents had used a buy-now-pay-later service.
- Personalized recommendations at checkout suggest other products that might interest you. Most use an algorithm based on your shopping behavior and profile to make unique recommendations. Some online retailers get a feel for consumer buying habits by prompting them to complete a quiz when creating their profile.
- Free shipping and easy returns could tempt shoppers to spend more. You may be less likely to buy something if the shipping fees are high or returns are a hassle. During the 2021 holiday season, free shipping and returns were more motivating to shoppers than discounts and promotions, according to a survey conducted by January Digital and Coresight Research.
- A free gift with purchase rewards consumers with a little something extra for shopping online. If they’re on the fence about making a purchase, it could be the thing that nudges them forward.
- Offering a discount if you sign up for a loyalty program or merchant credit card is another dangling carrot. Old Navy, for example, offers a 20% discount on the first purchase you make using their store credit card.
The psychology behind overspending
What motivates consumers to ignore their budgets and overspend? According to Abigail Sussman, professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, it has a lot to do with the desirability of the product.
“Sometimes that’s the scarcity motive — this is going to run out soon,” she says. “All of these things, on some level, just make people want it more or feel like they need to take action now or they might be missing their opportunity.”
FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing, and digital marketers know this. Sussman says there are two main ways this plays out. Both center on scarcity: Either time is limited or quantity is limited. This kind of messaging has a social component to it because it could make consumers feel like everyone else is getting something they’re not. From a budgeting perspective, you might also worry that if you don’t spend money now, you won’t be able to take advantage of the savings opportunity later.
To maximize profits, companies try to make spending money as easy as possible on the customer. Sussman says this includes storing your credit card information. This removes the hassle of having to take out your wallet and manually enter your payment information. Digital forms of payment like Google Pay or Apple Pay work in a similar way.
“One way you can get people to not think about their budgets is to get them to not think about spending being real money at all,” Sussman says. “The smoother the transaction is and the less contact you come into with things like your credit card or cash, the more likely you’re going to be to ignore your budget because, from an attention perspective, it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re spending money.”
This suggests that something deeper is happening behaviorally when we spend money online. Research shows, for example, that the anticipation of a reward can trigger the brain to release the feel-good hormone dopamine. For some, scoring a deal online could fall into this category. Sussman also points to a theory known as transaction utility, which was coined by behavioral science and economics professor Richard Thaler. The term describes the happiness you might feel from the perceived value of a deal.
“You can think about the value that you get from a particular purchase as being attributed to both the value of the product itself and the value of the deal,” says Sussman. “If it feels good to get a deal, in some sense that might be valuable in and of itself.”
How to avoid overspending
Consumer awareness can go a long way in avoiding overspending. Here are some other strategies you can use to keep your spending in check when shopping online:
- Make a budget: Before heading to your favorite online retailers, check in on your budget and determine how much you can reasonably spend. After your essential bills are covered and you’ve set money aside for your financial goals, you may have some discretionary funds left over. If you’re using a credit card, will you have enough money in your checking account to pay it off in full when the bill comes due? If not, you might want to modify your shopping cart to avoid falling into a debt cycle.
- Make sure your spending aligns with your values: Ask yourself if these products and brands match up with what’s important to you. If a company prioritizes sustainability or ethical manufacturing, for example, you may be more comfortable spending money to support those efforts. The opposite may also be true.
- Set up subscriptions for essential items: The less time you spend shopping online, the less likely you’ll be to make impulsive purchases. Setting up subscriptions for essential items means that they’ll be delivered automatically when you need them. As the old saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” You can set up monthly subscriptions for everything from toiletries to pet supplies to baby products.
- Avoid window shopping on your phone when bored or tired: If you’re constantly scrolling, impulse spending could be a problem for you. One Allianz study found that 57% of millennials spent money they hadn’t planned to because of content they saw on social media. If you’re bored or tired, try filling the time with something other than your phone.
- Sleep on it: Stepping away from your shopping cart might give you some clarity. Instead of clicking “buy” right away, try thinking about it overnight or for a day or two. This might help you decide if what you’re tempted to buy is really a necessity — or just a splurge.
- Pre-Marie Kondo it. Ask yourself, “Will these items spark joy once they’re in my home?” Pay attention to how you answer and honestly consider how often you’ll use them. Just because you’re getting a great deal, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need what’s in your shopping cart. Think first about the usefulness of these products and if they’re actually worth the money.
With the internet right at our fingertips, overspending has become all too easy — and digital marketers are taking full advantage. Knowing how to spot these online marketing tricks can help you stick to your budget and avoid the spending trap.