Online shopping and compulsive consumption: how to resist marketing tricks and impulsive purchases

8 min read
September 26, 2023

Online shopping offers convenience, ease and instant gratification. But there are all kinds of hidden costs when it comes to our finances, well-being, physical and online environments. 

In the cost of living crisis many consumers, especially young people, face a paradoxical situation: where they are struggling to afford basic necessities at the same time as they’re constantly incentivised to buy things they don’t need or really even want.  

With millions of social media platforms, retail sites and targeted adverts on our personal devices, the pull of compulsive consumption is strong – and can feel really hard, if not impossible, to resist. 

On top of traditional marketing, in the digital age, all manner of new tactics are used to manipulate our minds and empty our bank accounts. Addiction to online shopping is becoming a serious problem for many people due to the pressures of aggressive digital marketing tactics and algorithmic ploys. 

In this article, the second in our series on consumer trends and tactics, we’ll explore what’s driving compulsive consumption and give some guidance on how to stay aware of your spending, shopping habits and susceptibility to manipulation. 

Fast fashion: a case study in over-consumption

Perhaps the best example of trends that are transforming digital markets and consumer behaviour is the fast fashion industry. 

So-named for the accelerated cycles of production, consumption and disposal, fast fashion brands like Shein, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing or Forever 21 collectively produce an estimated 100 billion pieces of clothing each year. These items, from blazers to bikinis, are sold online for as little as £1. 

The environmental costs of fast fashion are beyond dire. The UN Environment Programme has shown that fast fashion is the second-biggest consumer of water and responsible for 10% of global emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined! 

Along with their environmental impact, these companies have come under further scrutiny for the methods they use to entrap and exploit workers and consumers alike.  

Channel 4’s recent documentary Inside the Shein Machine exposed how the pressures on factory workers to produce more clothing, faster and at lower prices, is coextensive with pressures on UK consumers to keep up with the newest trends by constantly buying more products. 

As well as the factories where the clothes are made – and the workers who face sweatshop conditions, wage suppression and illegal working hours – companies like Shein require whole infrastructures of technology and cultural trends to market their products. There are the algorithms that scrape the social media for new trends and clothing designs that can be cheaply replicated; websites and marketing strategies designed to push us into purchases we otherwise wouldn’t make; and social media influencers who create bespoke marketing content for these companies and push it on their network of followers. 

Small and seemingly inexpensive purchases made on retail sites like these may seem like a harmless indulgence. But people end up spending more than can afford – often using finance plans like Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL). Never-ending cycles of purchase and disposal see UK consumers trapped in the highs and lows of cheap thrills and bitter disappointments, feelings of power, control and abundance, or guilt, regret and financial precarity. 

Digital marketing machines and weaponised data 

Even if you aren’t on social media platforms like TikTok, algorithmic marketing strategies are being used to target you any time you browse the internet. 

If you have a smartphone, it’s likely that you’ve felt that your phone may be listening to you. When an advert for that pair of boots you’ve been lusting after, or the fitness app you were talking about earlier that day pops up it can feel a little spooky. What is really happening is that your data is being extracted and used to advertise goods that they estimate you’re likely to want – often with uncanny accuracy. 

Much of digital marketing today relies on algorithms that feed you what you want to see based on the data collected from your browsing history. This data turns marketing into a weapon – with more and more power to manipulate customers’ feelings and actions.  

The problem

What’s the harm in being shown products I want to see?, you ask. Well, some of the common psychological principles these marketing strategies operate on are designed to take advantage of and further entrench our proclivity for instant gratification:

  • Encourages impulse buying. These ads encourage you to make unplanned purchases on the spur of the moment – even when you’re just trying to see your friends’ holiday pics. This pressure to be spending at all times means that you will almost certainly end up paying for things that you don’t want. 
  • False association. These algorithms will push products that resemble ones you like or have previously expressed interest in, but that are often cheap knock-offs. In this way disreputable retailers are able to piggyback on the trust or confidence you have for other products to sell you something similar, but usually of much lower quality. 

How to resist

It may seem impossible to escape the influence of these digital marketing strategies. And in some ways, it is. However, the key to resisting their pull is creating healthy habits and regulating your behaviour so you’re less susceptible to their prompts to impulsively consume. 

  • Get an ad blocker. This will at least lower the number of ads you have to ignore.
  • Resist scrolling shopping sites as a leisure pursuit in itself. You are giving up your free time to feed the algorithms your information. 
  • Break out of the advert-to-checkout pipeline. Do some research on the company or product before you buy – suddenly it may not seem so appealing!

Website and app traps and tricks 

Algorithms aside, the apps or websites where we shop are designed to push us into purchases we otherwise wouldn’t make. Web design can alter our behaviour and entrap us in our own urges and instincts.  

The problem 

While it’s convenient to be able to make purchases online, there are all many ways that web design can increase our consumption that we must learn to discern:  

  • Overwhelm. What has become known as the ‘infinite scroll’ means that we are flooded with a seemingly infinite amount of products. The sheer quantity of stuff can become overwhelming, making it hard to stay focused on the thing you are really looking for. And even when you don’t end up buying anything, your views, clicks and other behaviours generate more data that will be used to market more things to you later. 
  • Re-direction. Online shoppers are constantly directed to related products with the tagline ‘You may also like’. So even when you are at the checkout, you are still being prompted and pushed to add more to your basket. 
  • Scarcity panic. Time-limited offers, flash sales, and stock countdowns put you under pressure to buy quickly and prey on our scarcity panic. This is a well-known psychological technique that wreaks havoc on our cognition and decision-making – in which we desire something simply because it is running out. 

How to resist

  • Delete shopping apps and unsubscribe from marketing texts and emails. By cutting out the constant prompts to go onto the shopping site in the first place, you’ll be freeing yourself from these pressures. 
  • Set limits on how long you scroll and how much you spend on a site. You can do this by setting a timer or putting a Post-it note on your computer screen with your monthly budget. 
  • Have a cooling-off period. Waiting a few days or hours before buying the product will give you time to forget – if you’re still thinking about it then you may avoid regret or guilt when it actually arrives.

Payment ploys

Digital marketing strategies can incentivize people to buy things they don’t need. But there is always the obstacle of being able to afford them.

As we explored in our article on BNPL, in the last five years new kinds of financing have emerged as people try to get their finances to keep up with their shopping habits. These forms of payment have become a lifestyle choice for people to support their constant over-consumption. According to an Insider Intelligence and eMarketer study, more than half of Gen Z digital shoppers used a BNPL service in 2022. 

The problem 

As well as BNPL, there are all kinds of other payment ploys that are designed to make things seem more affordable than they are, and incentivize us to spend more than we want:  

  • Multi-buy offers, discounts, and free shipping. These apparent discounts usually only apply after you’ve spent a certain amount. It becomes cheaper to buy something else than not, thus forcing you to buy more than you intended. 
  • ‘Free returns’ encourage you to buy a product even if you’re not sure if you even want or will keep the item. In the case of Shein, they will even issue a refund and let you keep the clothes – that is how profitable their business model is. 
  • One-click checkout on Amazon, Apple Pay, and Google Pay saves your credit card information. This means that there is almost no friction in the final step of a purchase. 

How to resist: 

  • Buy better, once. When things cost so little we are bound to see our items as more disposable. It may sound counter-intuitive, but spending a little more means you will treasure the purchase. Buying higher quality items means you are less likely to buy again in the future. 
  • Mindfulness. Before you pay take a second to review each item in your cart and ask yourself, “Do I really want this?”. You may be surprised how many items you end up putting back. 
  • Don’t save your credit card information. This will keep your impulse for instant gratification in check by creating more friction between you and the purchase. 

From compulsive to conscious consumption 

Switching from compulsive to more conscious consumption is probably more easily said than done.

We have never been subjected to such a flood of products, and there is still so little regulation on the kind of psychological warfare that retailers can wage on our overstimulated minds.

However, new trends like ‘de-influencers‘ suggest that there is more and more desire to break out of these destructive behaviours.

In our upcoming articles, we’ll be expanding on some more ways to help shift your mindset into a different mode and offer more insight into the tactics and techniques used to shape our shopping habits.


If you have any thoughts on this topic, or any other consumer issues you would like us to cover, feel free to get in touch with us at

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