Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Online Shopping Behavioral Finance Blind Spots

 

As noted in a previous post, online shopping surged in September with a 43% increase from 2019 in online sales. Since March, online sales in the U.S. have increased in a wide variety of categories (e.g., clothing, anti-bacterial sprays and wipes, toilet paper, over-the-counter drugs, and non-perishable foods) as a result of stay-at-home orders and coronavirus fears.

A big unknown is whether shopping habits adopted during the pandemic will continue after it abates. In the meantime, online sales during the 2020 holiday season (November through January) are expected to grow between 25% and 35%. As part of these sales, marketers expect increases in purchases related to home improvements and decorating as people stay home more.

I recently attended a webinar about the behavioral finance aspects of online shopping sponsored by Next Gen Personal Finance. As a result, I gained new insights into techniques that online marketers use to attract online shoppers. Below are eight things that I learned and am passing along to help you become a savvy online shopper:

¨       Dark Patterns- A generic term for techniques used by websites and apps to trick users into doing things that they did not plan to do and making it difficult to undo the damage. Examples of dark patterns are getting consumers to inadvertently sign up for something, unexpected charges (e.g., handling fees and delivery charges) at the end of the online checkout process and adding items into an online shopping “cart” through the use of checkboxes or “opt-out” buttons.

 

¨       Use of Color- Website designers employ a variety of tricks to foster online purchases. One is using the same color in a sequence for clickable boxes to navigate a website. Website visitors get used to a color and keep on clicking. Colors, themselves, also send powerful messages. Red creates a sense of urgency and is often seen in clearance sales, black is used to market luxury goods, and blue is used, often by banks and businesses, to create a sense of trust and security.

 

¨       “Roach Motel”- A type of dark pattern where online users make an unintended purchase very easily and then find it very difficult to get out. An example is inadvertently purchasing a premium subscription for a product or service and then having to spend hours searching online or calling “800” numbers to try to reverse the transaction.

 

¨       Privacy Zuckering- Another dark pattern, named for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, where online users are tricked into publicly divulging more information about themselves than they intended. This is often done via fine print in the terms and conditions of a website that gives the merchant that you are doing business with to sell your personal data.

 

¨       Confirm Shaming- A dark pattern where users are guilted into some type of “opt-in’ decision by the wording of the option to decline a product or service. It is often used to get people to sign up for an online mailing list. Another use is language like “No thanks. I do not want unlimited one-day delivery” for people to decline an online shopping program.

 

¨       Forced Continuity- This dark pattern affects short-term “free trial” offers where a service comes to an end and a person’s credit card starts getting charged the full retail price for the service. Worse yet, the company charging a person’s credit card often does not make it easy to cancel the automatic renewal.

 

¨       Bait and Switch- This is a classic deceptive retail practice that has found new online applications as a dark pattern. Online users set out to do one thing but something different and unintended happens instead. This is often done by the use of pop-up windows or the placement of clickable buttons. A classic example is the huge public backlash when Microsoft used a digital bait and switch technique to get computer users to upgrade their operating system.

 

¨       Disguised Ads- This dark pattern is where advertisements are disguised as content or some type of website navigation so users are encouraged to click on them. Advertisements may look like a download button for information, for example, often with the words “start download” or “download here.”

 

The best defense against dark patterns is to be aware of them and to not let your guard down when making online purchasing decisions. Take the time to review the content and format of online shopping advertisements and web pages. The traditional “Black Friday” for holiday shopping is predicted to be replaced by a series of sales by many retailer both in stores and online.

However you plan to shop this holiday season, be a savvy shopper. Scrutinize all sales information carefully and be aware of the cleverly sly dark patterns that online sellers use to separate people from their money. As with all personal finance information, knowledge is power.

 

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