By Michael Tedder
November 22, 2019
Klaus Vedfelt—Getty Images

Black Friday sales and Cyber Monday deals will be here soon, and e-retailers say that many of the best bargains will disappear soon after going live. But no pressure. Literally. In most cases, you have more time to scoop up the best deals than you’re being led to believe.

It’s very common for online shoppers to get a variety of nudges to go ahead and complete a sale while they browse an e-retailer website. These ploys often include limited-time offers, notifications that a product is “almost sold out” and timers that push shoppers to complete a transaction or else risk losing their item.

Yet as The Wall Street Journal reported, many of these messages and alerts are total nonsense, employed to manipulate shoppers into buying stuff. Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago examined “53,000 product pages from 11,000 shopping websites,” the Journal noted, and found that 11% of sites used a variety of techniques called dark patterns “to exploit online shoppers’ emotions, insecurities and biases,” often by creating false pressure to complete a sale before a deal ends or an item sells out.

It turns out that very often that these “limited-time” offers aren’t so limited, and the risk of an item selling out is vastly overstated. The researchers found that often “limited-stock counts were created by random-number generators; countdown timers restarted when a webpage was refreshed; and high-demand messages appeared for every item in a cart.”

As we’ve pointed out before, it’s not uncommon for retailers to offer misleading deals and inflated pricing in an attempt to make you think you’re getting more of a deal than you really are. In this case, the researchers created a web crawler to visit popular online retailers, and examined the text on the product, cart and checkout pages. From small consignment shops to specialty retailers, the researchers found that it was common for the same discounts and “flash sales” to reoccur from day to day. It was also common for retailers to publish “identical testimonials attributed to different customers” and to “confirmshame” potential shoppers with messages such as “No thanks, I hate saving money.”

Interestingly, while the researchers focused on online retailers, the Journal notes that the same patterns persist throughout the internet, including travel websites and mobile-phone apps.

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