Pressure sales tactics under scrutiny in run-up to Christmas

We’ve all seen them, the pushy flashing messages in the corner of websites we’re gently browsing for a deal. 

From flights to furniture, blenders to bikes, online retailers use a plethora of pressure selling tactics to part us from our cash as quickly as possible so we don’t think about it too hard.  

By pushing us to make buying decisions quickly, without careful consideration of whether we really need it, the budget we’ve got to play with or where else we might be able to find that product, these retailers hope to capture our online perusing and convert it to profit before we click off. 

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Some use pop-ups to warn us that hundreds of other people are either watching or have bought this item before – suggesting, among other things, that stock might soon run low and that we’d be in good company if we bought. Others make a big deal of large discounts during classic sales periods such as Boxing Day and Black Friday.

The clock is ticking

Retailers, and everyone else for that matter, have to comply with a series of regulations about how they advertise goods and services, including the convincers that accompany the basic details, price and features. Essentially, they have to be true and not misleading. 

That goes for all those “90 people viewed this item in the last 12 seconds” and “300 people bought this today” claims that invariably seem to appear too. Then there’s the infamous countdown clock  – the slowly closing window to buy that item or service that will absolutely, definitely complete you as a person or, if it’s a gift, make all the recipient’s dreams come true. And – for a limited time only – at a heavy discount to boot.

But those clocks aren’t always what they seem. This week, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint from a Wowcher customer who bought a mattress earlier this year at a 30 per cent discount. They had expected the price to revert to full price when the prominent countdown clock ticked down to zero, but the deal simply rolled over. 

The ASA found that to be misleading because, oddly, when a clock stops we expect something to change.

Wowcher and other deal sites sell customers vouchers that are redeemed at businesses in return for goods and services for a discounted price. 

Part of the deal this kind of website strikes with the merchant businesses is to sell a specific number of units in return for the discount, so they need to sell lots of them, and fast. 

That’s why these sites have become masters of the hard or pressure sale, convincing us to snap up these deals quickly before they go. Wowcher used the countdown clock around 50 million times last year. While this aspect of advertising isn’t a problem in principle, it has to be done accurately and fairly. 

In this case, Wowcher argued that the clock was there to give consumers reassurance that the price would remain valid for at least the duration of the countdown timer. 

The business is well known among its audience base as a discount retailer, it said, and as such doesn’t sell goods or services at full price so it felt consumers would be unlikely to assume “any product on their platform would change to a merchant’s full selling price at the end of the countdown timer”.

The ASA clearly didn’t agree. 

“We’ve seen in a rise in complaints about countdown clocks in recent months,” adds Lydia Marshall of the ASA. “Our rules state that countdown clocks can be used alongside promotions to give consumers legitimate notice of when a promotion will end. 

“This can be misleading if, once the countdown clock is concluded, prices remain the same or are even lower. We have rules against misleading pressure selling tactics, and claims in ads that put undue pressure on consumers to make a purchase can be problematic.” 

So where does that leave the consumer trying to fight their way through the hard sell discount sites? How can you get the right price at the right time for the goods or services you want and need while battling the sophisticated tactics that these and plenty of other retailers use to convince you to buy what they’re selling? 

How to deal with pressure

We’re constantly bombarded by selling messages – some more subtle than others. The shoppers who don’t succumb are those who have a plan, a list and a budget when they go shopping – either on the high street or online. They don’t stray from that no matter what tempting “must-haves” are dangled in front of them.

If you really do want to shop via discount sites, employ the same approach to spending that you do for any other purchase. Don’t let your head get turned by the huge, eclectic range of things you could buy while you rifle through them for the things you should buy. Think of it as the middle aisle in your local discount supermarket. If you’re not careful you’ll come out every time with a set of snow chains and a lobster.

It sounds obvious, but don’t assume the deal on offer is the best there is. Resist the countdown clock or simply your own last-minute Christmas shopping pressure to compare prices before clicking that “buy” button. That includes checking the merchant’s own website. 

Merchants using these sites are effectively buying exposure to their target market and that could be pricey. They may be tempted to inflate the original or full price to then counter the effects of the discount they offer on the discount site. So instead of comparing the discount, compare the end price you’ll pay, including any delivery or other service or admin charge.

Remember to double-check the small print on any vouchers if you do go on to purchase from these sites, particularly for time or other restrictions on where you can redeem the voucher, when and how.

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