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Spotting dark patterns in retailing

Are consumers really in danger from malevolent practices? It seems so, yes.

At least 2 out of 5 online shops use dark patterns to lure us to spend more.

Including Amazon. In a press release on January 30th 2023, the European Commission and national consumer protection authorities of 23 Member States, Norway and Iceland released the results of a screening of retail websites. This check covered 399 online shops of retail traders selling products ranging from textiles to electronic goods.

The investigation focused on three specific types of manipulative practices that are often known to push consumers into making choices that may not be in their best interest, so-called ‘dark patterns'. These include:

  • fake countdown timers

  • web interfaces designed to lead consumers to purchases, subscriptions or other choices

  • hidden information.

The investigation showed that 148 sites (37%) contained at least one of these three dark patterns. That's close to 2 out of 5!

  • 42 websites used fake countdown timers with deadlines to purchase specific products.

  • 54 websites directed consumers towards certain choices - from subscriptions to more expensive products or delivery options - either through their visual design or choice of language.

  • 70 websites were found to be hiding important information or making it less visible for consumers (such as delivery costs, composition of products, or availability of a cheaper option).

  • 23 websites were hiding information with the aim of manipulating consumers into subscribing.

  • 27 of the 102 apps screened deployed at least one of the three categories of dark patterns.

How can consumers protect themselves from overspending against dark patterns?

It comes down to becoming aware of how retailers may use buyer psychology to get us to overspend. They can do that by sabotaging our answers to these basic questions:

  • Do I really want/ need this?

  • Do I find the price reasonable for the value it gives me?

  • Can I afford it budget-wise?

  • How much do I want of it?

  • Is now the time to buy or would I rather wait?

Here are some common ways retailers can use buyer psychology to get us to overspend:

Leveraging our tendency to herd (follow the crowd) to get us to want in

Naturally, we rely on social proof (such as reviews from users, experts, influencers) to judge a product. But when browsing reviews we may focus more on the positive ones than the negative ones (confirmation bias). We omit the possibility that reviews can be faked. Instead, we should ask ourselves, are the featured reviews genuine or too good to be true? Are there enough reviews? Are these reviews relevant to me/ were these people looking to satisfy the same need as I am?

Making prices seem smaller

Any marketer who knows how to do their job knows that it's all about perception. It's (almost) never about an actual number when it comes to price. Rather, it's how that number is perceived by our brains, as high or low relative to something else (the value we get out of it, a competitor's product etc.) What affects our perception of price? Font size. Our brains confuse the font size of a number for the numeric value. If we see $15 in large font, our eyes send a signal to the brain about “font size” which the brain confuses with “price size”. Big font = expensive Small font = not so expensive Abbreviated numbers appeal smaller. Just compare 10K to 10,000.00 Odd numbers seem like a better deal than even ones. 90 is perceived as disproportionally more expensive than 87. Colors matter. When prices are shown in red we automatically assume it’s a bargain. Studies show that the red pricing effect works especially well for men. Prices in yellow are also perceived as lower. Ending in 0.99. For some years now, most retailers use prices that end in 0.99. That’s because our brains unconsciously round down. So 5.99 will be perceived as 5 instead of 6. High prices upfront anchor our expectations. What retailers usually do is list expensive items on top of the list/ website/ menu or in the shop window for customers to see first. In this way, they become anchors (reference points) in the customers' brains. After seeing these high-priced items, anything less expensive will seem like a bargain. It's all relative, after all...

Numbing the pain of paying

The act of paying triggers physical pain according to brain scans. The act of handing over money is akin to losing money, and this hurts because we are loss averse. Perfectly rational so far. Now, here's where our brain gets confused.

  1. Paying with cash is more painful than paying with credit cards. (This means you are more likely to stay within budget if you use cash than plastic.)

  2. Paying that first dollar hurts the most and every additional dollar hurts less and less.

  3. Present bias means that our present self overconsumes relative to the preferences of our future self.

To numb this pain, retailers use tactics - some legit, others not - such as:

  • pay in advance (so that by the time we enjoy the product it will feel as if it's free and not associated with pain)

  • buy now pay later schemes (deferring the pain of paying to the future, for which we care less about than the present)

  • bundling/ selling goods in packages (so that we only go through the pain of paying once)

  • drip pricing to hide additional costs until the consumer is locked in.

Buying more than you actually need

Free trials leverage the endowment effect. Meaning, if you use something you feel like you “own it” and are less willing to part with it so you will keep paying after the free trial finishes. Did you really want/ need that service in the first place? The power of free. “Buy two get one free” deals work because we are prone to buy more if it means we will get something for free. We don’t want to miss out on the free. But, do we really need three of these things? Anchoring again. Here's a delicious example: Snickers bars were being advertised on grocery store displays. The two versions were as follows:

The study found a 38% increase in sales when the number 18 was used instead of the word “them.” The number became an anchor. First, it's absurdly large so it catches your attention. And, it shifts your reference point from 2 or 3 to much higher. You end up thinking “18? I’m way better than everyone else, I don’t need 18 Snickers bars! I’ll just get 6.”

The decoy effect. Decoy is an option which no one is interested in because it’s objectively inferior to other options. It isn’t designed to be sold. Decoy has a different objective – to make other options seem more attractive and push the consumer towards a more expensive option. Here are some examples (most of us have fallen prey to):

Loss aversion & emotions. Instead of simply saying, do you want to subscribe, yes or no, some retailers frame it this way, making us feel bad if we choose to miss out on something:

Feeling pressured to buy now

Scarcity is a powerful force. The less of something, the more highly we regard it and want to have it. For example, when pineapples were first introduced to Britain about 200 years ago, they were so rare and amazing that they became status symbols! Some retailers use false scarcity with false countdown timers and other words to make products feel unique. Here are some words that automatically trigger scarcity in the brain of the consumer:

  • Limited time

  • Extended

  • Custom

  • Hand-crafted

  • One of a kind

  • Closeout sale

  • Everything must go

  • Last chance

Take-aways for shopping better

Some critical thinking and introspection is needed. Here are some questions to keep in mind: Do I really want/ need this? Do I have a use for this? Is the information provided credible? Do I find the price reasonable for the value it gives me or am I confused by the way it’s displayed? Can I afford it budget-wise, really? What would I need to give up to buy this now? Is it worth it? How much do I want of it now given my budget and other considerations? Is now the time to buy or would I rather wait for when I have the budget for it? How likely are they to run out of stock? Final thought: How about rewarding retailers who don't use any dark patterns? ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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