Do urgency tactics used by online retailers amount to marketing deception?
“Only 2 left at this price!”
“80 people are looking at this right now!”
These messages were offered as examples of tactics retailers are using online that may be contributing to impulse buying or unplanned purchases, according to a study from the University of Michigan School of Information.
An analysis of 200 of the top major online retailers found retail websites contained an average of 19 features that can encourage impulse buying.
Many of those features appear fairly innocuous, such as offering discounts, product ratings and interactive displays that allow users to, for example, zoom or spin product photography.
As opposed to typical marketing tactics employed at the store level, however, online retailers can take advantage of access to real-time information, such as the number of people who have already purchased an item, the exact number of products in stock or how many customers also have the product in their shopping carts.
“Some of this information can be helpful for consumers, but it can also encourage impulsive purchasing of products that in the end might not be worth it to the consumer or, in some cases, might even be regretted,” said Carol Moser, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the U-M School of Information, in a statement.
Of the 200 retail websites, 96 percent contained “social influence” features, which recommended products based on what “other people” bought; 69 percent used limited-time discounts with countdown clocks and other tactics that fed the buyer’s sense of urgency; and 67 percent made the product seem scarce with low stock warnings or “exclusive” product offerings.
One particular challenge for consumers is that they don’t know whether messages about an item’s popularity or availability is true.
In the study, the researchers wrote that some technology interventions may be able to support consumers by promoting more deliberative and less regretted choices. However, such interventions are hard to do without the cooperation of retailers and greater transparency, ethical practices and even regulation “may be necessary for supporting consumer rights.”
- Online retailer tactics and impulse buying: Consumers welcome tools to avoid it – University of Michigan School of Information
- Impulse Buying: Design Practices and Consumer Needs – University of Michigan School of Information
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think online retailers are using questionable tactics to create a sense of urgency around purchases? What do you see as the biggest offenses?