Do Online Sales Manipulate Buyers?

The other night I saw that Boohoo was having a fab sale – “20% off everything”. Oh, but I had to act fast: “Hurry ends 11pm!” it screamed at me, or more accurately, the millions of teens and young adults it targets… A countdown clock onscreen warned that the sale would be over in just 54 minutes and 37 seconds. “Hurry ends soon!” messages were plastered over the screen. I felt the looming pressure of the sale move my hand towards the checkout button.

I’m so glad I didn’t. The next morning I visited Boohoo again to mourn the deals I had missed out on. However, it didn’t even matter that the sale had ended as promised at 11pm, because it had started all over again. Once again I was told to hurry, because the exact same 20%-off-everything deal was going to end at midday. It was 9.06am and the website had reset the clock, telling me to “Hurry!” as I only had 2h 53m 14s left.

While anyone who has looked at sofas at DFS will be familiar with the never-ending sale, online retailers take it to another level. Every trick is used to raise the buyer’s pulse and SHOP NOW! There are only TWO SEATS LEFT on the flight. There are 27 PEOPLE currently watching this item. 84% OF ROOMS HAVE GONE.

Are all these claims bogus? Probably. Does anybody ever verify the claims? Probably not.

“The advertiser has created a false sense of urgency about the offer ending.”

My interest in Boohoo provoked some questions of Hilary Stephenson at agency Sigma, which analyses online retail. She told me, “Shoppers hate to feel they have missed out. Retailers capitalise on this with tactics that panic customers into completing their transaction before the offer is no longer on the table. This ‘limited duration’ technique is irresistibly persuasive to consumers, contributing to a sense of urgency and an underlying feeling of ‘buy it now or regret it later’.”

Is what they’re doing even legal? The Advertising Standards Authority wouldn’t comment directly on Boohoo, but they did say “creating an incentive to make a purchasing decision and using techniques that place an urgency and immediacy on things through countdown clocks and use of phrases such as “hurry now”, “act right now”, “hurry offer ends at XXX”, only to restart the sales offer the following day (and the days thereafter) could make the nature of the sale offer misleading, that is the advertiser has created a false sense of urgency about the offer ending.”

It’s a strange debate, whether Boohoo should be allowed to manipulatively panic people like this for their purpose, or whether we should all be more savvy and be able to see through their tactics.

In the meantime, I asked Boohoo to explain itself. It said the 20% off “is a promotion rather than a sale”, and that “the customer has the choice of using the 20% off code when they check out.” A weird reply – and no excuse for the spurious counting clock.

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