Tricks of the trade: How Amazon, EBay and other online stores get you to buy

Online shopping package being delivered
A UPS worker delivers an Amazon package to a residence. Online shopping sites use a variety of tricks to encourage impulse shopping, a study found.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Sale ending soon! Only two left! This is a hot item!

If you’ve shopped online, you’ve probably seen those messages. What you may not realize: They’re designed to make you spend more.

Online stores have adopted tricks used for years by infomercials and home shopping networks. The only difference now: Online stores are trying to get you to click the buy button.

After reviewing 200 of the top shopping sites, including Amazon, EBay and Macys, a study by the University of Michigan’s School of Information found that all the sites had an average of 19 features that could encourage impulse buying, such as limited-time discounts and wording that made an item seem like it was almost out of stock.

The best way to combat them? Be aware of the tactics retailers use.

“The onus is on the consumer,” said Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”


Here’s what to watch out for:

Almost sold out

Be suspicious of messages that say an item is almost sold out. They’re easy to fall for because more people are shopping on their phones and have less time to shop, said Underhill, who is also the founder of New York retail consulting firm Envirosell.

He said shoppers should take a break and check back a couple of hours later, especially if it’s an item you don’t really need. Chances are the item is not really selling out and you may decide you don’t want to buy it after all.

Another thing to watch out for: messages saying an item is in high demand. It can make you feel as if the item might sell out soon and entice you to buy.

A study by Princeton University and the University of Chicago singled out online clothing seller Fashion Nova, which tells customers that items in their cart “are in high demand.” The problem? The message appears for any item that’s added to the cart.

Fashion Nova’s cart also tells shoppers that their items are being “reserved” for 10 minutes. But nothing happens to the items after the 10 minutes are up.

Fashion Nova didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Falling prices

On Amazon, it’s common for the online shopping giant to show a crossed-off “list price” and a lower price it is selling the item for. Don’t rely on that, said Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate who runs Consumer World. He recommends searching for the item on other sites to see if there’s an even lower price.

Another tip: Use price tracking site CamelCamelCamel, which can show you how the price has changed over time and let you know if it has been cheaper.

And be wary of sites that say there’s a limited-time discount but don’t give you a final date. That’s a sign it’s just a way to get you to shop.

Confusing emails

If you went to an online store, expect to get an email in your inbox soon. Online stores use artificial intelligence technology to send you emails if you browse or add something to the cart, even if you don’t end up purchasing anything. Read them carefully — they’re designed to get you back to shop.

Dworsky has received emails whose subject line made a promise of offering $10 off or free shipping, for example, but then the small print says you have to buy much more to qualify.

Fighting back

If you see a sale countdown clock that keeps restarting, savings that are too good to be true or other misleading activity, Dworsky said, you should alert the authorities. Try your local consumer affairs office, state attorney general or the Federal Trade Commission, which takes consumer complaints on its site. Also try complaining to the online store.

“Until someone stops them,” he said, “they’re going to keep doing stuff that crosses the line to being deceptive.”

Pisani writes for the Associated Press.