How many clicks of your mouse do you think are required to buy something on Amazon.com? If you’re a first-time buyer, meaning you haven’t created an account and haven’t provided your shipping information, the answer is 10. That’s actually a lot, especially when you take into account the “three-click rule” of web design. A few clicks can be bypassed if you search for the item rather than navigate the menus, and a few more if you let your web browser auto-fill your information. If you’re a regular, then, the number of clicks is closer to 5. And, of course, if you have an Amazon Echo device, then you need exactly zero clicks to buy something.
The point is this: retailers are constantly trying to reduce the distance between them and your wallet. Upon first glance, the most obvious difference between buying something online and buying something at a brick-and-mortar store is that you don’t need to walk into a physical store, meaning you don’t have to interact with sales reps who may or may not nudge you towards a particular purchase, or cashiers that pressure you into buying something on top of what’s already in your cart, or the physical store itself, which is meticulously designed to subconsciously manipulate you.
But here’s what you may not realize: online shopping is as much a cocktail of manipulative strategies, on the part of retailers, as it is when shopping in physical stores, and even more so.
Ignoring, for a minute, the arguments against hyper-consumption, the question of why you buy the things you buy, as well as the evil ingenuity of capitalistic “holidays” like “Black Friday”, “Boxing Day” and “Amazon Prime Day” — those are stories for another day — let’s assume you’ve already decided to buy something and you’ve already decided to buy it through Amazon. One of the first, and strongest, attempts at manipulating you occurs with pricing.
Finding “the right price” for an item is a science. For retailers, a perfect world would be one in which “pure price discrimination” is at the heart of every single transaction. In a nutshell:
“Price discrimination is a pricing strategy that charges customers different prices for the same product or service. In pure price discrimination, the seller charges each customer the maximum price that he is willing to pay.”
Such instances of pure, or perfect, price discrimination would occur when a seller adjusts the price for a customer according to attributes such as the customer’s eagerness to buy the item, the seller’s history with them, the supply of the item, the demand of the item, and even indicators of social class. A middle-aged woman carrying a yoga mat will be quicker to pay for a $900 designer handbag at Nordstrom than a college-age woman likely would for the same handbag at a lower price.
Of course, this is very rare in physical retail, because products have strict margins and haggling is not as ingrained in Western culture like it is in other parts of the world, not to mention the manpower and negotiation training it would require. It’s simply not feasible. But it is with online shopping.
Part of what makes perfect price discrimination unfeasible in traditional retail is that sales reps probably won’t have the optimal amount of information about a customer to be able to extract the highest price that particular customer would be willing to pay. That is not a problem for online retailers, who either gather data about you themselves, like Amazon, or acquire it through the likes of Facebook or Google.
All the data that is required for perfect price discrimination exists and the means to employ such a strategy also exists. The only thing preventing online retailers like Amazon from embracing this strategy is that consumers would riot if they found out. But we may become susceptible to it in the near future, after more subconscious grooming and priming.
We’re heading in that direction. We already accept paying different prices for movie tickets based on age, we know sales taxes discriminate based on location, and we’re willing to pay more for a low supply item with high demand. Even if prices remain static, perfect price discrimination may still manifest through other methods, such as showing two people who profile differently the same item, made by different brands( with different prices). We are well on our way to perfect price discrimination.
Price discrimination aside, online retailers have just as much room as physical retailers do to play with prices en masse, if not more. As The Atlantic notes:
“We judge a store’s prices based on a handful of products we know well. Grocers have recognized this for decades, which is why they keep the price of eggs and milk consistently low, making their profits on other goods whose markups we don’t notice as easily.”
Armed with this knowledge, along with the knowledge that we have a tendency to care a little less about comparing prices for things with a low base price, retailers can raise their prices on things like charging cables for your phone with minimal effect on sales.
Tack on a large banner that says “Limited Time Sale” or “Up to 50% Off on Select Items” or create a fake holiday as an excuse for encouraging hyper-consumption and what was overpriced suddenly becomes perceived as a bargain, without the item itself actually changing in any way.
If I had a phone case that cost me $10 to make and I decided to sell it for $15, listing it as $19.99 then putting it on sale for $14.99 comes across a lot better than just listing it as $14.99. Perception is everything.
The big online retailers, most namely Amazon, even utilize pricing bots that scour competitor websites for their prices and then subsequently adjust their own prices to be slightly lower. Retailers are constantly trying to figure out what “the right price” is for a given item.
“Simply put: Our ability to know the price of anything, anytime, anywhere, has given us, the consumers, so much power that retailers — in a desperate effort to regain the upper hand, or at least avoid extinction — are now staring back through the screen. They are comparison shopping us.”
So you’ve found the item and you’ve added it to your cart. Prepare yourself for more some more trickery. Have you ever added something to your cart, gone to view your cart, only to find that there are several other items there? Upon further investigation, you may find that those items are actually not in your cart, but are presented as if they are. This is a classic trick referred to as the “Sneak Into Basket”, which is one of many, many “Dark Patterns” in UX design that are designed with the intent to trick you.
Some of the more devious retailers, or the ones that simply don’t care, take the Sneak Into Basket a step further by actually putting things into your basket, adding them to your bill unless you manually remove them. This is also referred to as “negative option billing” or “inertia selling”, which has become illegal in some countries, but not yet so in the jurisdiction that is the Internet. Go to your favorite online store and pretend to buy something. Look at the contents of your cart and examine the screen. The best-case scenario is that there’s nothing there besides what you added, but there’s a good chance there’s at least some advertising for related items or special offers.
Then comes the stuff that happens after you confirm your Amazon order. Work conditions for about 125,000 full-time employees at the “more than 75 fulfillment centers and 25 sortation centers across North America” are not good at all. Online shopping, particularly due to the shipping of products, is also horrible for the environment. It’s stressful for postal workers, and even worse for contractors of programs like Amazon Flex, which is almost downright exploitative. It’s easy to overlook this part of online shopping, but just because you don’t see these things, doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
When you shop online, not only do you get subjected to the black magic of hyper-consumption, it’s harder to notice than it is shopping in-person, and you also become susceptible to manipulative UX design. What happens after you order your item isn’t without its problems, either. The way to fight this is to be aware, and to be conscious of the forces at work. Or maybe not. Maybe we’re actually okay with being fooled into paying more, as long as we think we’re paying less, or that we stumbled onto a fantastic deal akin to buried treasure. Maybe ignorance is bliss. Or, maybe not.