In a recent article, the ABC discussed how fast fashion uses psychology to encourage impulse buying among shoppers.
This raises the ethical question of when is the use of psychology to ensure the profitability and sustainability of a business legitimate and when does the use of psychology enter the realm of dark patterns?
Most businesses would argue that they are entitled to use any legitimate means to ensure they attract as many customers as possible; dark patterns are simply the way to achieve this.
The term “dark patterns” was coined by Brignall to refer to subtle design features embedded into websites. These features manipulate human psychology to ensure consumers make decisions they may not make under different conditions or if they have more information . In other words, dark patterns are used by businesses to create impulse buying.
Examples of practices companies use on their websites to encourage impulse buying are things like:
These techniques encourage impulse buying by manipulating customers’ fears of missing out and scarcity. They also provide immediate or close to immediate gratification.
Research of the top 200 online stores found that on-average retail websites have 19 features to encourage impulse buying. Five websites, including Amazon.com and Target.com, have more than 30 features that could contribute to impulse buying.
Does this matter?
Is it a case of customers beware, and online retailers can do whatever they want to ensure a profit?
While all businesses have the right to trade profitability and ensure sustainability, several questions arise regarding using dark patterns on websites.
Online stores are available 24/7, products are generally less expensive and can be flown around the globe easily, and the rise of buy now pay later services like Afterpay means online shopping is readily available. Since the pandemic and lockdowns, online shopping has become many people’s preferred shopping source.
A survey found that more than five in six Americans have made impulse purchases, with each person spending an average of $81.75 per session, amounting to almost $18 billion in total (McDermott, Reference McDermott2021). Other studies found that online purchases amounted to approximately 40% of consumers’ online expenditure (Liu et al., Reference Liu, Li and Hu2013).
Given the impact of rising interest rates on household budgets and the stress this causes for many families, should businesses exercise restraint in the number of dark patterns they use on their retail websites? Is it appropriate to be using a minimum of 19 and up to 30 techniques to have customers purchase items on impulse?
Failure to disclose information to customers in business and retail is misleading and deceptive. Yet, businesses use dark patterns on customers with no disclosure and no opportunity for customers to know if the information presented to them is factual. For example, is there low stock of the item, or is that just a sales gimmick? Even if there is low stock, is it an item readily re-stocked, or does it take months? These are questions to which the customer has no answer.
Do businesses have a responsibility to at least have a disclaimer on their website being clear to the customer about what techniques they are using to encourage sales?
Consumerism is central to the functioning of our economy. Business needs people to buy. There is; however, an increasing number of consumers experiencing compulsive shopping. Professor Mike Kyrios, a clinical psychologist from Flinders University, believes society is seeing the rise of a disorder that he labels “compulsive shopping ”.
The characteristics of this disorder are difficulty controlling spending on consumer goods, buying unnecessary items in excessive quantities, spending beyond a budget and buying things that are never used. According to Professor Kyrios, over one million Australians fall within this category . Some studies have found that up to 40% of a person’s budget has been spent on impulse online buying .
When people have difficulty controlling their spending, there is a financial, emotional and mental health impact. The financial risk is around their budget being so tight that they may fall behind with their mortgage or rental payments, they may have outstanding electricity bills, and they can spiral into further debt. Emotionally the person will oscillate between the elation of purchase to feeling guilt and anxiety about how to pay for it. This emotional rollercoaster can become a habit when each time the person feels down, they go online and then purchase something to feel good, only to repeat the guilt and anxiety. Anxiety and guilt can tip over into a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression.
With the availability of online shopping and the rise of mental health conditions post-COVID, particularly among young people, do online retail stores have a responsibility to encourage healthy consumerism rather than compulsive buying?
The study by Cambridge that has been referenced found that consumers wanted companies to assist them with self-control tools on their websites.
For example, increasing the checkout effort rather than making it more accessible; forcing a postponement rather than enhancing immediacy. A tool that would help customers calculate the hours they would have to work to pay for the product. Customers also wanted features that encouraged deliberation or reflection, such as completing a needs assessment before making the purchase or being forced to make a list of why a customer needs the product.
The irony is that customers want businesses to use fewer dark patterns on their websites rather than more. They want companies to assist them in making considered, helpful purchasing choices rather than impulsive purchases when they feel emotionally vulnerable.
However, it wouldn’t take much for a business to demonstrate the importance it places on customers. All they need to do is reduce the number of dark patterns they are using and increase the number of tools customers are looking for to assist them in making constructive and helpful purchasing decisions.