The clamorous world of consumerism sees millions of companies competing for our hard earned cash. To tempt us, they’ll offer all kinds of things to sweeten the deal. Yet what may appear as a generous offer can conceal a much darker side: manipulative tactics that make it impossible for us to get the fairness and freedom of choice we deserve.
Our recent article on ‘online shopping and compulsive consumption’ took a deep dive into various trends and techniques that are changing the way we shop online: from bad habits that trap us in cycles of endless spending and post-splurge regret, to the digital marketing strategies used to push us into needless purchases.
With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Boxing Day and New Year sales, plus the innumerable other excuses to spend this festive season, there are some sales tactics that are so prevalent and effective we thought they needed some further debunking.
In this article, the penultimate in our series on consumer trends and tactics, we will be looking at how companies use pressure selling to turn a profit and prey upon our proclivity for scarcity panic to make us lose our heads.
As well as explaining how these strategies work, we’ll give some handy tips for resisting the pressures put on you during the winter sales season.
Pressure selling refers to manipulative techniques used to exert excessive pressure on potential customers to secure a sale.
Whether you’re buying flights or getting a new software subscription, pressure selling has become a common tactic used by companies to get customers to make a purchase they otherwise wouldn’t.
Pressure selling used to be associated with door-to-door salesmen who use aggressive persuasion strategies or create a sense of urgency.
In a digital age, these techniques are translated into online infrastructures that pile on the pressure as you shop online. These aggressive marketers may not be on your doorstep or in your home, but they are in your inbox or social media feeds.
You may have made an inquiry into a service and found yourself dogged by relentless follow-up emails, texts or phone calls. Or, you may find yourself deciding against purchasing a product only to face a barrage of emails about something you left in your basket. Some companies may even offer you a time-limited discount code if you sign up or complete the purchase right away.
These chaser emails and discounts are a form of pressure selling – attempting to control or force you into a purchase you’ve had second thoughts about.
As we have covered before, many companies now rely on an army of people or bots to leave fake reviews that give a false or inflated review of their product.
On social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, it is particularly easy for influencers to make highly exaggerated claims about a product with little regulation.
A product may be advertised as “most loved” or “eco-friendly” without any further evidence being provided to substantiate the claim. False advertising – including things like green washing – are so common these days that it is up to consumers to learn how to see through it and demand that the supporting facts are given. (Check out our tips on how to spot a fake review).
This high-pressure sales tactic is used to make consumers rush into a purchase.
It is particularly common within the airline industry. You may have noticed how, once you’ve expressed an interest in travelling to a particular destination on certain dates, flight prices go up based on your browser history. Seeing prices go up is sure to trigger us into rushing a purchase decision.
These tactics only work if we cooperate with them. Yet we should not undermine our own vulnerability to the powers of psychological manipulation.
A key factor at work in these manipulative sales techniques is a psychological phenomenon called ‘scarcity panic’.
Scarcity panic – in which we desire something simply because it is running out – wreaks havoc on our cognition and decision-making. Companies can easily create a sense of urgency by claiming that a product or service is in limited supply or available for a limited time.
Phrases like “This offer ends today” or “Only a few items left in stock” push customers into making impulsive decisions. However, in many cases, these claims are exaggerated or completely false.
Other examples of techniques used to create scarcity panic include:
All of these marketing tactics capitalise on the fear of missing out to make you rush into a purchase without thinking it through.
As well as offering time-limited promotions or discounts, many companies will simultaneously hide important conditions or additional costs. For instance, you may be advertised a significant discount on a product but later find out that there was no mention of the hidden fees or mandatory subscription packages that accompany the purchase.
Remember that legitimate businesses offer ongoing promotions and sales, so take your time to compare prices before committing to a purchase.
Unsubscribing from marketing texts and emails will help cut out the constant prompts to shop. Apps like Cleanfox can help you easily opt-out and clean your email inbox.
Take the time to research and evaluate the company, product or service before succumbing to false advertising or scarcity panic. Using price comparison sites like PriceRunner will make sure you’re getting the best deal available.
By going incognito you will be able to avoid price hikes based on your search history.
When something is on special offer you should always read the fine print before making a decision – especially with subscriptions which may tie you into financial obligations for some time.
To avoid overspending, make and stick to a list of items you want to save on. Having a list will help you only buy the things you actually need.
The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations protects you from unfair practices and bans misleading and aggressive sales tactics. There is an updated version of this guidance from 2014 on the government website: ‘Misleading and Aggressive Commercial Practices Guidance’.
According to this legislation, if you feel you were unfairly pressured into buying a product or service you didn’t want, you have the legal right to a refund. As stated by Citizens Advice, the same goes if you feel that you were misled about the product or service you bought.
However, in digital markets there is still very little regulation of marketing strategies and tactics. Even if you have been mis-led or pressured, it can be tricky to prove this and get a resolution from the company.
We would always encourage consumers to stand up for themselves and fight these manipulative tactics. However, we also know that it is best for consumers to try and avoid succumbing to the pressures of manipulative marketing in the first place.
If you have experienced some manipulative sales tactics it’s a good idea to report an aggressive or misleading seller to Trading Standards. They may not be able to resolve your case but they can stop the trader from acting unfairly in the future and taking advantage of other people.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.