All retailers trick us into spending, but they're smarter about it online

By Erin Griffith , written on December 14, 2012

From The News Desk

It doesn't take the investigative journalism of The New York Times to tell us that the holiday shopping mall experience sucks. We already know this, because, as this article by Oliver Burkeman correctly points out, we go back for more every single year, no matter how much of our soul it sucks away. The relentless Christmas music, the cluttered, over-merchandized stores, the crowds, the weird stench of generic "holiday" pumped in. It's all finely engineered in each store, thanks to expensive studies meant to give retailers an edge in what feels like a battle against the sanity of their customers.

A few ways they do that:

Make the music uncomfortably loud. Shoppers are likely to spend impulsively.

Make the music slow and emotional. Shoppers are more likely to linger in the store for longer.

Make the store smell seasonal. Shoppers are likely to spend more.

Place bargain bins out front. Shoppers are more likely to cross the "deliberation threshold."

Make important staples difficult to find. Shoppers are more likely to buy unnecessary splurge items if they are forced to encounter them while searching for their intended purchase.

These techniques are no secret to shoppers. Which is why each year, more of us bow out of that whole shit show to do our holiday shopping in an environment that is somehow more sane and civilized in this one category: the Internet.

Online, retailers use just as many psychological tricks and techniques to pry open our wallets, but they do it so well that we don't even feel we're being tricked. If done poorly (like in the case of Beachmint, which I'll get to later), it can backfire and make us wish we'd braved the mall. But when done correctly, we feel delighted.

The online retailers start by making the credit card piece of it seamless, a recent phenomenon following Amazon's success with one-click buying. Once we create an account and add that info, it's a simple login to begin spending. Apps like Uber and WeHostels take it a step further on mobile -- users simply take a photo of their credit card and viola, they're shopping. With Uber, and many of the subscription commerce companies we've seen explode, implode, and peter out over the last year, you never even think about paying -- the money just quietly slips out of your bank account like a gym membership or Netflix account. It's scarily seamless, and yet, it works way better than any annoying tricks.

Somehow, e-commerce companies have managed to convince us that they're sincere and on our side. And aside from shipping concerns, we're generally quite satisfied shoppers online.

It helps that the online retailers of late have learned a few lessons from Web 1.0 and used them to make the e-commerce experience damn near pleasant. The democratizing power of the Web means that big chains like Macy's and Saks have to compete with everyone from Etsy crafters to the behemoth Amazon. Shoppers won't stand for standard forms of trickery when there's a better option one click away.

So e-commerce sites have done away with the digital equivalent of the pushy salesperson, pop-up ads. And they've killed anything resembling the loud music, aka, autoplay audio and video (remember that?). They know that making things difficult to find and navigate is the equivalent of digital suicide, as per my rant about the importance of the search box. And even if computers found a way to exude smells, I'm pretty sure e-commerce sites would know to avoid them.

Online, retailers need to make consumers feel respected and taken care of. So they've gotten much, much smarter with their tricks. And it's incredible what they've found we consumers will happily tolerate.

Require me to become a "member" before I can even browse the store? Sure. Now I've put effort into the relationship and feel a connection to the store. Email me every single day with beautifully curated goods and editorial content? I'll open that. Ask me to download an app to browse the merchandize on my iPad? Why not! Now I'm coming back several times a week. Sign into a store via Facebook so my friends can see what I like and buy? No prob, now I'm doing their advertising for them. And they are measuring and tracking it all, a privacy measure many shoppers either don't realize or happily give up in exchange for more relevant, personalized shopping recommendations.

Shopping on tablets is popular enough that Apple recently created a new category of "catalog" apps. Now beautifully curated "stuff-lust" apps like Pickie and Monogram have solve the signal-to-noise problem natural to any democratized marketplace.

However, there is still a fine line to what level of trickery we'll tolerate from our online retailers. It all boils down to trust.

Take the Beachmint family of sites. When I "joined," the same way I joined a million other member-before-you-browse sites, and purchased a necklace I liked, it was never made clear that I'd signed up for a monthly subscription. For someone who covers subscription commerce fairly closely to be tricked by it, I imagine most consumers were, too. Several months later, I noticed an email from JewelMint (amid the flurry of communications from the company and its sister verticals) telling me I had two unused "credits." Which is to say, JewelMint had charged me 30 bucks, two months in a row, and I'd never even noticed. After spending the credits, I navigated the site for several minutes looking for ways to cancel before giving up and Googling "how to cancel JewelMint." The only way to do so was through a phone call to customer service during 9-5 business hours, Pacific time. It looks like they've since added IM and email cancellation since, thankfully. But the point is that I felt tricked and I'm not alone in that mentality.

Today a friend IM-ed me, unprompted, to vent about how aggressive and confusing the Mints were. She's a satisfied ShoeMint subscriber. And yet, she writes, "I pretty much ACCIDENTALLY went to Stylemint," she wrote, "and I am terrified I will somehow get signed up for the other ones if I just LOOK at stuff."

Not great for a company which has experienced turmoil in the form of layoffs, struggles to raise a new round, and concerns over its rapid expansion into new verticals.

We're willing to tolerate plenty of marketing trickery online, but the minute we lose trust with the retailer, its worse than whatever soul-sucking annoyance we put ourselves through at the mall. It becomes a scam.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]