With the holiday shopping season about to come upon us, we thought that now would be an excellent time to help you beef up your knowledge of the tricks that marketers use – both online and offline – to convince you to buy more, more, more. While “tricks” is a strong word and could likely be just as easily replaced with the word “tactics,” the end result is the same. You’re encouraged to buy things you may not even need (or want for that matter) based on the clever idea of a marketer. And yes, we concede that many of these ideas are clever. Today, we’re focusing on tips and tricks that you may encounter in the online shopping arena. Later on, we’ll be focusing on brick and mortar and then an edition called the sign-up edition, the upgrade edition and another one dedicated to data collection. But since shopping is increasingly moving to an online environment, we thought we’d start there.

Number One: The Cross-Sell. Don’t You Need MORE?

Marketers love taking advantage of impulse purchases, and the online arena is one of the best places to do that because shopping decisions can be made quickly and without having to physically handle cash or a credit card as part of the process. That’s why so many online retailers focus on the cross-sell as an integral part of their shopping experience. What’s a cross-sell? It’s the items you see on the product page or, more commonly, as you check out that inform you that people who bought what you’re buying also bought another item or items. Of course, you’ll not only be excited by the product but you’ll also feel safe ordering it because other people just like you did. What do you do to overcome this? Just go adblind to the cross-sells! Don’t even look at them! They’re designed to be too tempting to resist.

Number Two: The Upsell. Don’t You Need Something BETTER (and more expensive)?

Imagine you go into a store to buy a television. The salesman approaches you and, as he talks to you over the course of time, convinces you that you need a better (and more expensive) version of a television than the one that you originally walked into the store to buy. In retail speak, this is called an upsell and it’s when you move somebody from buying a cheaper product to a more expensive one. It’s also much, much easier to accomplish in an online retail environment. You don’t need to spend money on a salesman or stock both types of merchandise when one may not sell. Online, you can effectively use display and pop-ups and email and user recommendations to convince somebody to buy an upgraded version. How do you avoid falling prey to these? Do your research before you buy and go adblind to anything else. Just go through your purchasing process for what you wanted and do not look left or right. You know what your budget was and what you came to buy.

Number Three: The Email. All of the Email.

You would think that with the rise of social media and mobile messaging, email would be dead to online retailers. But that is far from the truth. In fact, the reality is that for most online retailers email is still one of their largest profit centers. The cost of sending you an email (spam or otherwise) versus the revenue generated from the email is extreme and extremely profitable. More importantly, unlike social media where people tend to engage in conversation but not action and mobile where many people research but few transact, email allows online retailers to contact you in an environment where you are likely to take a direct action. And that direct action is to purchase based on the (often unrealistic) offer in the email. As an added benefit, email lists are often tied to account histories, so marketers can target emails to you that present the products or offers that you, specifically, are most likely to respond to. How do you avoid this tactic? Immediately unsubscribe from all of the marketing or retailer emails that you are signed up for. We promise you that if you run the data you will find that you spend more and buy more unnecessary items because of email than you actually save money.

Number Four: The Retarget. They Have You Now!

We often advise you when you’re considering a purchase or impulse buy to walk away from the purchase for twenty-four hours and, likely, at the end of that you won’t feel like buying the item any more. But what if you couldn’t walk away from the item? What if you had looked at the item online and for the next thirty days the retailer was able to make sure that every time you logged into your computer and went to your favorite social network or website that supports advertising you would see the exact product staring right at you again and again? That’s what retargeting is. Using cookies and other identifiers, online retailers are able to see what sites you have visited and even what products you looked at on those sites and then target you within social media or website advertising and display those offers to you online. Ouch. This is a difficult one to avoid as well. You can turn off your cookies, but your web experience generally does suffer when you do that. You can use AdBlock, but it’s not entirely effective. Our best advice is to browse using Google Chrome and, when you want to explore shopping sites, use an “incognito” window.

Number Five: Urgency Marketing. THE TIME IS NOW!

Limited supply! Limited time discount! You’ll find these types of tactics used in offline marketing as well, but they often tend to be more effective in online campaigns where there is a greater sense of speed with the purchasing process. Here is what you need to know: unless you are seeing an item in the final clearance section of a website and it is marked down fifty percent or more, nothing in retail world is truly permanent or final (except possibly your purchase if it doesn’t qualify for a return). You’ll encounter this type of marketing, known as “urgency marketing,” in all walks of retail, but you’ll be the most likely to grab an item “before it’s gone” when you’re shopping online. How to avoid it? Knowledge is power. Know that you have more time (and opportunity) than you realize.

Number Six: The Mystery Discount. You Just Opened That Email!

One of the most “trendy” marketing tricks rolling around online right now utilizes the email marketing channel we recently talked about. When you’re dealing with email marketing, subject line is everything. The more people you can get to open your email, the more revenue you’ll make from people who respond to your offer. Marketers cleverly figured out that human curiosity is a powerful thing.  So if you receive marketing emails, you’ve likely seen a slew of them in the last year with subject lines telling you to open the email to receive your “mystery discount” amount. In fact, often these same mystery discounts are used on headlines in social media advertisements. Here’s a hint: your discount is unlikely to be anything more than 20% and it’s usually closer to 10%. The big discounts you were expecting with a mystery discount are not going to be there. But once you’ve interacted with the ad you’re much more likely to purchase from the company. How do you avoid these? Again, knowledge is power. Don’t open the email because you know that you’re not missing out on anything great if you do.

Number Seven: The Subscription Discount. We Will Bill You FOREVER.

This one is also quite huge right now. How many subscription box offers have you seen online recently where for a set price per month you’ll get delivered items for a discount over what you would pay for them if you were paying full retail value? Here’s the catch. Eventually, you typically stop purchasing or using the product, but you often will forget to cancel the subscription and the retailer will get to continue to bill you without having to fulfill any orders. The catch to this is that the subscription price is usually set so low that you easily forget about it until you realize that, over time, you’ve easily spent a hundred dollars or so and you finally cancel it. It’s been a marketing tactic for a long time, but it recently became hugely popular. How do you avoid this? Really, how many things do you need a subscription to? Just don’t sign up!

Number Eight: The Free Gift. We Promise You That Nothing Is Ever Free.

Free gift is a marketing technique used across all channels, all the time. But it’s particularly insidious online when you can’t actually see the physical free gift that you’ll be receiving. We’ve talked before (and certainly will again) about how nothing is ever really free. The cost of your free gift is worked into the cost of the item that you’re purchasing. You are, in one way or another, paying for your free gift – and in the case of an online purchase you may even be receiving a free gift that’s nowhere near as nice as it looks in its picture. Free gifts. Just don’t fall for them.

Number Nine: One-Click Shopping. Buy Now Before You Have Time to Think About It.

We’ve also talked previously about one-click shopping and how it’s one of the most powerful facilitators of the “impulse buy” that we’ve ever seen. How can you be expected to take the time to think through and process whether or not you want to make a purchase when all that you need to do is to click exactly one button? The answer is that unless you’ve developed powerful postconsumer self-control already you can’t be expected to do that. And that’s why e-tailers invest tons of money and energy into making sure that logged-in customers can always purchase with one quick and simple click. Avoiding this is hard. You’ll need to work on the self-control we mentioned above. While shopping offline has disadvantages in that it’s often harder to walk away from something you’re physically holding than it is to walk away from a virtual product, you still have to stand in a checkout line and be with your thoughts then. Online, you can see, click and purchase. You’ll need to strengthen your mental muscles over time to deal with this.

Number Ten: Free Shipping. We’ll Say It Again. Nothing is Ever Free.

Free shipping, much like free gifts, is a cost that has already been worked into the margin of the item that you’re purchasing. That’s why, typically, you don’t receive free shipping until you’ve spent at least fifty dollars on a website. Yet, for some reason, free shipping is consistently one of the most effective promotions that marketers use. We understand that. The cost of shipping can be prohibitive, and if there’s an item that you’ve been waiting to purchase free shipping is a great perk. But free shipping shouldn’t be why you purchase an item that you weren’t previously planning to buy. Because it’s truly not free, we promise. If you see a free shipping promotion on something you’ve been waiting to “catch a deal on,” grab it! But don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re getting a great deal that you absolutely have to act on just because free shipping is an option!

Marketers don’t mean to be evil. In fact, they’re not. They’re simply people with a job to do using the best tools that they can come up with to do that job. However, we as postconsumers have jobs to do as well. By educating ourselves about these tactics, we can make sure that our decision making is driven by informed and thoughtful choice rather than responses and reactions to marketing tactics.

Did we miss a marketing tactic that online marketers use that you want to share with us? If so, just tell us about it on one of the social media channels below.

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Photo Credit: Maria Elena via Flickr