How to Avoid Manipulation By Online Stores & to Shop Smarter

September 12, 2018 4 min read

Before we get started… In case you are wondering: Yes, I am aware that dignify, here, where you’re reading this, is an online store! And that I sell things here.

Indeed, I want to sell kantha quilts — lots of them! But, in my desire to create opportunities for dignity for women sewing blankets in Bangladesh, I still want to preserve the dignity of our customers, and of ourselves.

These are the kinds of headlines I often come across from groups & blog designed for online ("ecommerce") shop-owners like me:


Strategy, psychological triggers, tactics to influence... these are all the ways that many retailers view the seller-buyer relationship. When a business is publicly traded, their prime responsibility is to increase shareholder value, making the whole equation even more functional & disembodied. But, we're all still humans, just trying to take care of life.

I don’t think there is any problem with serving customers with what they want (but maybe haven’t identified), providing the information they might be looking for (at the moment they are interested), or making choices to motivate someone who is on the fence. But, when an experience is designed to manipulate a customer with fear, or encourage a customer not to overthink the purchase… well, I think we can all do better than that.

As a shopper, you are up against a lot of motivated sellers, using their best strategy to influence you to buy, and buy fast. So, let’s bring our best, discerning minds to the equation, too. In the end, we should have products & purchases that we will be happy with over the long run, instead of impulse purchases that we regret.

Keep in mind these key tactics that are frequently used to motivate browsers into buyers:

Scarcity & Urgency

The fear of missing out can have a powerful effect on shoppers. This is true, but it's also a phrase I cut directly from a blog post, encouraging retailers to use this truth to "make more people buy and less people “go home and think about it”."

Examples of scarcity & urgency tactics are:

    • Impending out-of-stock announcements like:
      • “Only 3 left!”
      • “52 out of 58 sold”
      • “There is a limited edition of 100 units worldwide”
      • “Our last product launch sold out in 8 hours! Get them before they’re gone!”
    • Limited time sales:
      • A countdown clock
      • "130 people have looked at this item in the past hour"
      • Flash Sale
      • “Offer Expires 9/15/18 11:59PM”
    • Timed shipping offers
      • “Buy this in the next 2 hours for next day delivery”



    One of the above articles notes: “The principle of reciprocity in sales psychology means that when someone gives us something, we feel compelled to give something back in return.”

    This is like the subtle obligation you might feel after trying a free sample to then buy the item you were given.

    In online sales, this might look like:

    • A free gift with purchase
    • Valuable content, like a quiz or a buying guide to that type of item (e.g. help in figuring out what type of bra is best for you)
    • A bonus in your parcel when you receive it


    Social Proof

    Examples of social proof:

    • Testimonials
    • Customer reviews
    • Indications of the number of sales that have taken place over a period of time or ever
    • Indications of followers on social media
    • Endorsements from celebrities or "influencers"

    I think that the true recommendation of a friend is actually one of the best reasons to buy an item. Just watch out for the difference between an actual product endorsement from a trusted source vs. a "saw this and thought of you" item.

    I was burned with one of my worst-ever, impulse purchases, because it was forwarded to me from a friend. She wasn't telling me to buy it, but her suggestion was an implicit social proof that lowered my barriers to buy... even though she had no idea what a junky product it turned out to be.



    I saw some Facebook ads telling me that Sam Smith was playing my city in September. Then I saw a reminder every time I listened to music on Google Play. Then, more ads! By the time this week (the week of the concert) rolled around, I wanted to go and was ready with cash in hand!

    As a customer, just remember that if you don't want to be bombarded with reminders of a particular brand, there are options: unsubscribe from an email list; tell FB not to show you ads from that seller; clear the cookies from your browser, etc.


    Plus, there are good old fashioned tools like budgets & lists that can ensure that you are buying based on planning, financial prudence, and actual want, rather than buying from being worn down by good ads. 


    In sum

    You're smart, you aren't wasteful, and you can be totally discerning with how (and to whom) you spend your money. 

    Keep your eyes open and make decisions based on what you think is important, not based on the cleverly planned sales flow, designed to discourage you from "going home to think about it".

    Take your time, be wise, don't worry about scarcity or perceived obligation.

    The ones who deserve your money will get it, and the ones who don't can work harder (/smarter/better).

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