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12 Ways Online Retailers Trick You Into Spending More Money

In my life as an online business owner, I use many tried-and-true methods of tricking people into spending more. And I do it because they work. If they didn’t, online stores wouldn’t use them.

But that doesn’t mean you have to fall for them. As you shop online, whether for physical goods or online services, keep your eyes out for these tricks to make you spend more money online.

Ways Online Retailers Trick You Into Spending More Money

If you want to spend less money on things you don’t need, it helps to be aware of these tricks used by online retailers to separate you from more money than you originally planned.

1. Volume Discounts

It’s an old trick: offering a discount if shoppers spend more money.

These could be as simple as 10% off all orders of $100 or more. E-commerce retailers also often offer free shipping for all orders over a certain amount, such as $25.

You know it works on you too. We’ve all wracked our brains to come up with something else we need to order to meet that minimum order threshold and eliminate shipping costs.

In this case, knowing isn’t half the battle. We keep doing it even though we know it’s tricking us into spending more than we otherwise would.

2. Upsells

Upselling involves pushing you to buy a more expensive version of the thing you’re already planning to buy.

For example, you ask about a $25 bottle of wine at the restaurant, and the server steers you toward a $50 bottle instead.

In online shopping, this takes more subtle forms. For example, when you’re browsing lower-end coffee makers, the e-commerce site displays higher-end models on the sidebar or somewhere else on the page. They tell you other customers bought them or that these are more popular before showcasing their higher-margin wares.

Sometimes, they get even more aggressive and say the other items were better-reviewed.

And they don’t just put them on product pages. They also display them prominently in internal search results, often either highlighted or flagged as recommended. Or they just show their most expensive products first among the search results.

Funnel Stacking

An advanced form of upselling involves leading customers through a sales funnel with ever-increasing purchase options.

For example, you attend a free webinar. At the end of the webinar, they push you to buy a $99 online course. You do, and you enjoy it, but it doesn’t include all the detail you want.

Meanwhile, they start pushing you to buy their $999 premium course with four times the content and many extras and add-ons included. They even offer to apply the $99 you already spent toward your purchase.

So you buy the premium course for an extra $900. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? And this course is more detailed, but it still leaves you with some questions.

The course creator starts emailing you offers to work with them in one-on-one coaching for a truly personalized experience. That costs $250 per hour with a minimum of six sessions.

Or perhaps they come at you from a different direction. They offer a done-for-you model in which they do all the heavy lifting to help you start doing your desired activity. And it’s expensive at $9,999, but they guarantee results and do all the work for you. You tell yourself it will save you money in the long run by getting you out of the gate sooner.

Little did you know when you attended that free webinar, you’d soon pay that company $10,000 or more.

3. Downsells

It goes the other way too.

Downselling involves offering you something cheaper if you refuse the first offer. For example, you ask about the price of a wine, and when the bartender sees your eyes widen in shock, they propose an alternative bottle they say tastes similar but costs less. They don’t want to lose your business entirely, so they aim lower.

In the online space, downselling often takes the form of follow-up emails or notifications about abandoned carts. They may offer you a small discount or propose a cheaper alternative to lure you back and complete the sale.

Alternatively, some websites use exit intent monitors to flash you a last-ditch offer when you go to exit the site. When your mouse icon tracks toward the back button or to close the browser tab, suddenly a large, colorful display ad appears offering you a discount or cheaper alternative not as easily found on their site.

As far as the seller’s concerned, a lower sale is better than no sale at all.

4. Cross-Sells

Not to be confused with upselling, cross-selling involves encouraging you to buy products in addition to your primary purchase.

Watch out for these examples of cross-selling in your online browsing.

‘You Might Also Like…’

When you add something to your cart, retailers often recommend additional merchandise that goes well with it.

For example, you add a coffee maker to your online shopping cart. The retailer then suggests you also add coffee, coffee filters, a coffee bean grinder, or a one-of-a-kind coffee mug that gives you a back massage while singing your favorite song.

These products tend to be highly relevant and targeted specifically for your purchase. That makes it all too easy for you to say, “Hmm, you know what? That actually sounds really useful.”

Cue the cash register bell for the online retailer.

Product Bundling

Sometimes, e-commerce companies bundle related products together. For example, you can add both that coffee maker and the coffee bean grinder to your cart as a single purchase.

In the most egregious cases, they don’t even let you buy them separately.

More often, they offer some small discount when you buy them as a bundle, such as $5 off.

In some cases, they push the bundles far more aggressively than the individual products. That can take the form of them appearing first in internal website searches or being flagged with bright, colorful banners saying things like, “Best Deal” or “Bundle and Save.”

The Checkout Squeeze

Many online sellers wait until checkout before hitting you with a series of often highly manipulative and pressuring cross-sells.

Travel booking sites and airlines are notorious offenders here. For example, on an airline’s site, after selecting your flight and proceeding to checkout, it bombards you with potentially expensive offers like:

  • Do you want travel insurance in case you have to cancel or change your flight?
  • Do you want to choose your seat?
  • Do you want to check a bag? How about a second bag?
  • Do you want automated online flight check-in?
  • Do you want priority boarding?
  • Are you sure you don’t want to upgrade to first class? What about business class or premium economy?

The last one also represents an upsell. But each of the others is just an add-on service designed to separate you from more of your money.

It’s the same way when you book a rental car. They push you to buy additional services and protections, such as car insurance, a GPS unit, unlimited mileage, and prepaid gas.

Post-Purchase Cross-Selling

The push for more of your money doesn’t end after you buy. On the confirmation page, some companies push you to buy even more.

For example, they say it’s not too late to add to your order, then display those related items that go oh-so-well with your purchase.

Savvy marketers even include cross-sells in the confirmation email. You open it, and somewhere near your purchase information it says something like, “Add these within 24 hours, and we’ll include them in your shipment.”

5. Contrived Urgency and Scarcity

If you know you can buy something any time, you don’t have much motivation to buy now.

So marketers use scarcity — real or invented — to pressure you to decide immediately.

For example, when you use a hotel booking app, they display the number of rooms left for your dates. Airlines do the same with seats when you search fares. “Only four seats left at this price!”

Similarly, they may display notifications or send an email telling you multiple other people have looked at the same flight in the last 24 hours. This tactic combines a sense of urgency with a retail trick known as social proof.

Or they simply invent scarcity. They sometimes achieve it with flash sales and limited-time offers, an old strategy. A more recent approach involves a limited-time launch, where they open a specific product for sale for a few days before closing the cart again. Alternatively, they sometimes include extras and freebies only for a limited window.

Websites often emphasize the urgency with a countdown clock. The constantly moving visual creates a visceral sense you must act now or risk missing out.

In some cases, the “sale price” is actually the real price, and the full price tag is simply inflated to create a false baseline outside regular promotions. For instance, retailers may raise prices just before Black Friday so they can display a steeper “money-saving” discount. The same trick works just before a buy-one, get-one-free sale. Retailers can then adjust the price back to normal after the sale if they so choose.

6. Social Proof

In psychology, social proof refers to the validation of a person, place, or thing by other people liking and using it. We see others flocking to a new restaurant and view it more favorably than the sleepy alternative across the street.

Websites have used social proof tactics like testimonials since the dawn of the Internet. As social media grew in popularity, companies also started showing off their number of followers, likes, or shares, even if they bought them.

More recently, companies have started using little notifications at the corner of the screen saying something like, “Dawn from Denver just invested in our course,” with a small photo of Dawn. A short time later, another face and name pop up, indicating they bought it too.

In most cases, these don’t reflect real people or purchases. They’re preprogrammed on a timer loop with a set list of names and photos. It’s just one more sneaky way to make you feel more comfortable buying because you see so many other (fake) people buying the same product.

7. Push Notifications

Online businesses know how few people read their marketing emails. So even as they try to find ways to collect your email address for their mailing list, they’re also on the lookout for other ways to reach you.

One way is asking if you’d like to receive notifications in your browser. If you opt in, they can use push notifications to display messages to you any time they want. These messages appear right in your browser, even as you visit other websites. Marketers use them to promote a discount or sale, to let you know about new products or content that’s available.

They don’t need to collect any personal information — all you have to do is click a message agreeing to receive these messages in your browser or on your mobile device.

Unlike emails, these messages reach users more effectively because they display right in your face without you having to open anything. These messages can include rich media, making them even more flexible for marketers.

That’s why it’s best to decline push notification requests from websites.

8. The Freemium Model

Everybody wants and expects things of value for free. As a business owner, it’s infuriating.

So many business owners offer a free version to get prospects in the door. Once there, they can upsell them to a premium version to monetize those users.

Phone games offer a classic example. They’re free to download and play but come with limitations, delays, or annoyances unless you pay something. Some games (and other apps) display ads frequently unless you upgrade. Others build in delays, such as a 12-hour waiting period while your character constructs a building or upgrades to a higher level. You can avoid those delays by paying a small fee.

In my software business, many of the tools and services are free. That gets people using the software, and from there, we can encourage them to take advantage of our premium features as well. In one case, we offer both a free and a premium version of an important legal form.

Like most of the other tactics, the freemium model isn’t inherently unethical. It merely represents a modern example of a loss-leader marketing campaign. The company takes a loss by offering an outstanding deal to get people in the door, then upsells and cross-sells them to convert them into a profitable customer.

An offline example of a loss-leader is a huge TV sale. The electronics retailer lures you in with a discounted TV offer and makes back their profits by selling you accessories like a mounting kit, Blu-ray player, Apple TV, and connecting cables. In freemium models, the free plan is the TV, and the additional features of the paid plans are the accessories.

9. Member- or Cardholder-Only Sales

One way retailers trick you into spending more is by offering promotions exclusively for members or store credit cardholders. From grocery stores to brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce companies, it remains a classic retail trick.

That incentivizes a fresh wave of people to sign up as members or open an in-store credit card. They get to collect your contact information for future marketing campaigns. Plus, people inherently want to get the most out of their membership or card, so they spend more with that brand.

It’s nothing new, but it’s certainly effective.

10. Psychological Pricing Tricks

Retailers sometimes get practical with their college psych classes.

The “anchor pricing” trick involves showing you an outrageously expensive item first — usually something no one buys anyway. Every other price you see after that looks reasonable compared to the original anchor price, even if you originally had no intention of spending that much.

The “Goldilocks pricing” trick works similarly. In this variation, the retailer displays three options for comparable products. One is priced astronomically high, and another is cheap but visibly shoddy and inferior. The middle product is the one they actually intend to sell you, which again looks reasonable by comparison. But it’s still usually a higher-priced product than other alternatives on the market, many of which are probably good choices at better prices.

That’s one of the benefits of Amazon. Their marketplace is so extensive you can quickly browse through dozens of similar product options. That prevents some of these pricing tricks.

11. Individualized Marketing

Big Tech giants like Amazon and Google have far too much personal data about you. And they can use precision marketing to target you with laser focus. And no, it doesn’t require you to actively search for a product online.

Last Christmas, I discovered firsthand just how extensive (and invasive) that data collection is. In the privacy of my living room, I told my wife I wanted a Mark Andrews jersey. I never once typed this into a Google search or otherwise indicated buyer intent. But suddenly, I started seeing ads for Mark Andrews jerseys when browsing the Web on both my phone and laptop.

I couldn’t figure out how Big Brother knew about my designs on an Andrews jersey. I realized there could only be one of two culprits: Amazon’s Echo Dot, which I have in my living room, or my Android phone. One of them overheard my passing comment and collected it as an advertising data point.

Privacy is dead. Big Tech is listening everywhere, all the time, even when “off.”

12. Easy Enrollment, Hard Cancellation

All subscription services make it as easy as possible to enroll and set up recurring payments. That’s simply good business.

But many make it much, much harder to cancel. In some cases, you can’t do it through their website at all — you have to call them, navigate through their (inevitably tedious) phone tree, and eventually, when you reach a human employee, they will try to talk you out of canceling. If you insist, they’ll offer you discounts, freebies, or other incentives. Only with the greatest reluctance will they let you out of your subscription.

Making it easy to buy is one thing, but intentionally designing your system to take a Herculean effort to opt out of future purchases is one of the more manipulative and dishonest practices on this list.

Final Word

Marketers and consumers are forever locked in an arms race. But as marketers invent ever subtler and more creative ways to separate customers from their money, customers become savvier.

A decade or two ago, you probably stopped and looked at that colorful pop-up ad that appeared while you were halfway through reading an article. Now, you likely close it without even glancing at it.

Simply be aware of the tricks they use as you shop online. Pause and think before whipping out your credit card, and implement a 24-hour delay before all purchases over $24. If you really want or need something, you’ll come back for it. But if not, you’ll probably shrug and say, “never mind.”

G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.

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