As the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear, consumers should be mindful of the tricks retailers use to get them to spend more money.
Using a web crawler on over 11,000 retailer websites worldwide, a team of researchers from Princeton University and the University of Chicago discovered so-called "dark patterns" on more than one in 10 sites, which can trick people into signing up for recurring subscriptions and buying things they don't want. In a new report, released this November, the researchers also reported that "many" of these "dark patterns might be "potentially unlawful."
That's not necessarily breaking news — the report, called "Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites," notes that market manipulation techniques have long been used by retailers to entice customers to spend more money.
But these strategies are exacerbated online, where digital retailers can design their shopping experiences to appeal to the shopping behaviors of individual users. They can also use tactics that brick-and-mortar stores cannot, such as a "quick add-to cart" button, a one-time discount, a count-down clock or promote product reviews and ratings.
And, as the researchers found, online retailers can also add items to a customer's cart without their knowledge or consent. If the customer doesn't notice before they check out, they've just spent money they didn't intend to. The report gave an example of a flower delivery site adding a card to a user's cart in addition to a bouquet or floral arrangement.
And there are plenty other deceptive dark patterns at play.
Dark patterns work by exploiting shoppers' cognitive biases, according to the report. They are often covert, deceptive, restrictive or hide important information from consumers.
Adding items to a customer's cart without their consent is an example of default effect, per the report, or "the tendency of individuals to stick with options that are assigned to them by default due to inertia," while revealing a hidden cost at the last minute plays into sunk-cost fallacy, or "the tendency of individuals to continue an action if they have invested resources into it, even if that action might make them worse off."
Another commonly used tactic online is indicating to customers that there are limited quantities of a product or service, or that something is in very high demand (you see this commonly on travel websites). That plays into humans' scarcity bias, or one's tendency to place a higher value on things that are limited or perceived to be.
The report also details how retailers trick people into buying things or signing up for marketing emails by using deceptive language. Websites are able to confuse customers by using a double negative, per the report, like, "Uncheck the box if you prefer not to receive email updates." Customers can also be deceived into giving sites their personal data, which is becoming increasingly valuable to companies and online platforms.
Practices meant to blatantly deceive consumers in order to influence their behavior for a profit are "unambiguously unlawful in the United States," under the Federal Trade Commission Act and some state laws. Legislation was introduced earlier this year in the Senate that would ban "large online platforms," like Facebook, from using dark patterns to trick users into giving out their personal information.
But there's no clear indication yet of what consumers can do if they believe they are being tricked, beyond avoiding online shopping altogether. Other than that, awareness of the shady techniques retailers use can help shoppers ignore or avoid them.
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