16 Ways Online Retailers Are Tricking You During Quarantine

Laveta Brigham

When COVID-19 lockdowns started in March and brick-and-mortar stores became mostly off-limits, consumers flocked to shop online, driving a monumental growth spurt in online spending.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce sales grew more than 30% between the first and second quarters of 2020; in the […]

When COVID-19 lockdowns started in March and brick-and-mortar stores became mostly off-limits, consumers flocked to shop online, driving a monumental growth spurt in online spending.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce sales grew more than 30% between the first and second quarters of 2020; in the second quarter of 2020, Americans spent $211.5 billion online. Though panic buying and other consumer trends — like spending more time on social media — were largely responsible for the surge in online spending, e-retailers were quick to pull out tricks — or dark patterns — to lure shoppers into spending more.

“A dark pattern is a design practice that is intentionally created to mislead a user or have them do something that they wouldn’t normally do,” said Tyler Andersen, senior product designer at ConsumerTrack.

While many of these dark patterns — like cross-selling and targeted ads — are not new e-commerce practices, usage of them has intensified since the pandemic began.

“Online retailers have been caught between a rock and a hard place during COVID-19,” said Michael Bonebright, senior editor at Deal News. “On the one hand, online shopping has exploded in 2020 as quarantine has forced people to buy necessities without stepping into stores [with] huge retailers like Amazon struggling to meet demand. On the other hand, coronavirus, tariffs and issues with the USPS have led to major delays in shipping. As a result, retailers that are smaller than Amazon — everyone, basically —  are desperate to move old stock and make sales. The constant stream of clearance events — combined with a lot of spare time for online shopping — leaves consumers vulnerable to shady sale practices.”

Clearly, there may be more risks to online shopping than you think.

Last updated: Oct. 1, 2020


Cross-selling entails showing the customer a product related to what they’re already buying in an effort to drive them to buy more. An example: A customer adds dish soap to their cart and then, before checking out, the customer gets the suggested offer to buy a sponge, too. The idea is that the two go hand in hand, a compelling logic for any shopper who is stocking up on supplies.

Amazon has, in the past, attributed 35% of its revenue to cross-selling, according to CBS News; and smaller e-retailers are following in its footsteps.

Akram Tariq Khan, a digital marketer with YourLibaas.com, an international e-commerce fashion site based in India, said that due to the pandemic, the site has a “lot of new functionality,” including cross-selling.

“Let us suppose you viewed ‘x’ different products prior to adding one to your cart,” Tariq Khan said. “We will algorithmically select the closest products in terms of attributes and try to cross-sell it to you.”


Upselling is often confused with cross-selling but is distinct from it. This is the sneaky sales tactic of incentivizing customers to purchase a higher-end — and higher-priced — product or bundle of products than they are considering.

To help them weather the pandemic, Hotel News Resource encouraged hotels to upsell, while other hotel industry publications, like Hotel Speak, have recently debated whether the technique is “pushy.”

Email Upsells Disguised as Confirmations

“Email upsells disguised as confirmation emails are the newest way that online retailers encourage shoppers to buy more,” said Yaniv Masjedi, chief marketing officer at Nextiva. “Aside from the traditional upselling techniques used in the checkout page, online retailers incorporate an upselling portion in shoppers’ confirmation mail. After shoppers finish paying for their products, the confirmation email will also contain a message that says, ‘You can add these products before we ship your package.’ The sense of urgency makes shoppers more likely to purchase the upsells, making it a sneaky way of increasing average customer lifetime value.”

Limited-Time Offers

“Online retailers are often tricking you with ‘limited time deals’ to get you to spend more, quicker,” said Chans Weber, founder and CEO of Leap Clixx. “Prices are often increased days before the sales, with the ‘deals’ actually being the original price before the increase.”

Customers might feel like they’re scoring a deal, but the only winner here is the seller. To avoid this sneaky tactic, Weber suggests using price history sites “to check on the actual prices of products and their changes over time.”

See: 34 Things That Shouldn’t Be This Expensive

Countdown Clock

“If you see a countdown clock for a promoted discount or free shipping, you’re probably being manipulated into making a hasty purchase,” said Kimberly Smith, marketing manager at Clarify Capital. “The purpose of a clock is to rush you into buying, so there’s less opportunity for you to sit on a purchase, or exit the site with an item left in your cart. Don’t be fooled though; these clocks often restart after you leave and return to the site again.”

Personalized COVID-19 Coupons

“We are offering personalised coupons, especially for those who abandoned their carts, following this format ‘CUSTNAMECOVIDSAFE,’” Tariq Khan said. “This not only adds a personal touch but also boosts customer confidence within the brand as the emails have an image describing what steps are we taking to ensure safety during the pandemic.”

Adding a COVID-19 Policy to the Site

Notice an influx of updated COVID-19 policies added to shopper sites? On one hand, it’s simply the responsible thing for a vendor to add, as customers need to know that merchants are taking this pandemic seriously. But there’s an ulterior motive here, too.

Tariq Khan said that adding a COVID-19 policy “wherein we display how we are taking safety measures at every step possible: procurement, packaging to last-mile delivery” has boosted sales on their site amid the pandemic.

Misleading Sales Fonts

“Sale prices are often highlighted for shoppers, usually with a different color font color and size, and the list price mentioned in smaller font or crossed out,” Bonebright said. “If you’re just looking for that sale font, you might miss that the discount is actually tiny. Before you buy anything on sale, always check the old price to make sure you’re saving more than just a couple pennies.”

‘Exclusive’ Sales for Store Credit Card Holders

“Tons of retailers host members-only sales; in general, they’re called ‘Friends & Family’ events, and they’re open to shoppers that say, subscribe to a retailer’s newsletters,” Bonebright said. “However, some stores will host special sales that are only for shoppers with a store credit card. The insidious thing about these sales is that they encourage you to sign up for a credit card you probably don’t need, and wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Don’t put your credit at risk just to save 20% during some random sale.”

Find Out: The 37 Mistakes We Make When Shopping At Costco, Amazon, Target and Walmart

Free Delivery — If You Spend More

“Retailers are duping customers by offering free shipping when they make orders amounting to some amounts,” said James Jason, financial analyst, digital marketing officer at Mitrade. “The movement restrictions and convenience of free deliveries make them fall into this trap. Due to the terms set for qualifying for the ‘offers,’ they end up spending a lot or with excess stock.”

Buy One, Get One Free

How many times have you gone looking for a pair of shoes and learned that if you buy two pairs, you can get a third at half-price? This is a tried and true method to get you to spend more — and possibly not even get the shoes you wanted.

As behavioral economist Dan Ariely explored in his book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” because of the zero-price effect, people are complete suckers for the word ‘free’ — even if’s not something they really want, and retailers both understand and capitalize on this.

Bundling Products

Buying in bulk often makes sense, but buying bundled products often just means a bloated bill for add-ons you don’t really want.

“These bundles will include a bunch of products that are all similarly related, like a bunch of camera equipment, for example,” said Ian Sells, CEO of RebateKey. “Retailers will bundle these products together to make you feel like you are getting a great price compared to what you would spend if you bought the products separately, [but] bundles often include products that you probably wouldn’t otherwise buy or which may not be moving fast enough for the retailer.”

Using Charm Prices

Prices ending in nine, 99 and 95 can have a strange psychological effect on human perception; making the product at hand seem somehow cheaper it really is. To tap into this is to use “charm pricing” — and it ties into old psychology that odd-numbered prices can elicit emotional reactions in shoppers and potentially move them to purchase.

Telling You Others Are Viewing/Buying the Product You’re Looking At

To show customers that the product they’re viewing is in hot demand, online retailers might flaunt an alert about others viewing or purchasing said product.

“This integrates social proof into the buying process,” said Brian DeChesare, founder of Mergers & Inquisitions. “It reassures customers that others around the world are buying with the retailer. Most crucially, it’s achieved without customers having to click away to read reviews, which can distract them from buying. Customers might be wary at first, but when they see how many other people are buying products, they tend to ease up.”

Targeted Ads

Getting an ad for Lysol after you just searched for some online? It’s likely no coincidence — these are targeted ads. This is a common practice and consists of advertisers tracking your online activity to serve up an ad that they think will make you bite. Advertisers also use hyper-targeting and geo-targeting to increase their odds of making a sale.

Triggering a ‘Scarcity Effect’

“Messages like ‘almost sold out’ or ‘one left’ add just enough pressure to entice you to purchase with urgency, and often-times, on impulse,” Smith said. “From a business perspective, the goal is to facilitate conversions, or sales, before the consumer has time to change his or her mind.”

Ultimately, this triggers a psychological reaction known as the “scarcity effect” — wherein consumers believe something is worth more because there’s less of it. E-commerce stores are at an advantage with this trick “because there’s much less transparency when it comes to inventory,” Smith said. “You can’t tell if there’s really ‘one left,’ or if there’s several and the seller is leveraging your emotions to get you to make a purchase.”

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This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: 16 Ways Online Retailers Are Tricking You During Quarantine

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