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Five Sneaky Online Retailer Tricks to Avoid

Annie 1st May 2024 No Comments

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Online retailers often seem to be one of the best ways to save money shopping. But did you know that they often employ sneaky tricks to make you spend more, just like the supermarket tricks in real life? We’re going to look at common ways online shopping sites make you spend more – and how to beat them at their own game.

Trick One: Introductory Discounts

Trick Two: Subscription Models 

Trick Three: Free Gifts

Trick Four: More Items, More Discount

Trick Five: Scarcity Illusion

Save With Delivery Passes

Look for Comparison Websites

Get Group Discounts

Search for Discount Codes

Use a Cashback Site


Online Retailer Trick: Introductory Discounts

How many times have you visited a website for the first time, to get pestered by a pop-up advocating a 10% discount on your first purchase? And how many times have you signed up to the newsletter to get your discount?

Not only are you likely to find bigger discount codes for the same site online, the discount also won’t apply to things like sale items or multibuy offers. So, you’ll add things to your cart and not necessarily realise they aren’t being discounted when you check out.

Signing up to newsletters can be a good way to spot upcoming deals but only from retailers that you know you like and will shop regularly from for your essentials or as somewhere you like to buy gifts from. Otherwise, you’ll be on the receiving end of lots of emails promoting things you don’t actually want or need – but their limited time discounts for newsletter subscribers can look so tempting…

Only sign up to receive a newsletter once you have used an online retailer more than once and have been happy with their service. Otherwise, it’s easy to get sucked in to deals for things you weren’t planning to buy in the first place!

Trick Two: Membership Subscription Models

This is a particularly big one for womenswear, for some reason. Fabletics is a great example – their introductory offer is two pairs of leggings for £24, instead of around £70 each. Sounds like a bargain, right? Except, you’re also signing on to pay for a monthly ‘membership’ that gives you access to unique prices. Memberships for websites like this can easily be £40 a month – and they might say that includes a ‘free’ item of clothing each month or ‘huge discounts’ on their usual prices. However, unless you’re in constant need of athletic gear or want to buy a bra every month (Shapermint, we’re looking at you), it’s not worth the price.

Play the game by signing up and getting your two pairs for £24 (or whatever the subscription introductory offer is for the online retailer you’re looking at) and then CANCEL YOUR MEMBERSHIP as soon as your order arrives. Always check the fine print too – make sure you’re not getting yourself into an annual membership contract before you place an order.

Trick Three: Free Gifts and Free Delivery

This is as common a trick in real life as it is for online retailers. You’re encouraged to spend over a certain amount in one shop to qualify for a ‘free’ gift. Usually, this does not work out as value for money!

The only times these offers work is when you were planning to spend that amount anyway, and the ‘gift’ is something you would use anyway (or can use for a present for someone else). A good example of where this can work is with Boots around Christmas time. They will run the ‘Buy Two, Get One Free’ model on many of their gift ranges. If you’re buying Christmas presents anyway, this can be a way to save money.

But if you don’t actually want that makeup set ‘Worth £70’ or similar, think twice about spending more money just to receive it. These free gift values are also usually based on the full size version of cosmetics (as an example) rather than the sample size, which is only evident in the fine print.

Free delivery tricks

Free delivery is also a culprit in this online retailer trick. How many times have you decided to add one more item to your shopping basket just to qualify for free delivery – but the item cost more than the delivery fee? This is, for some reason, an easy mental trick to play on ourselves, because we see delivery as a service and the extra item as a physical thing. So, it feels like it’s value for money when we receive an extra item than we’d planned to buy, even if it cost us more.

There are two easy ways around this: first, don’t bump up your order price just to qualify for free delivery (unless it is with items you want and use regularly). Second, Google ‘Retailer + free delivery code’ to find a free delivery discount voucher to apply to your basket to save money.

Trick Four: More Items, More Discount

The mentality behind this online retailer trick is similar to that of ‘buy one, get one free’: the discount is only worth it if you want and use the items enough to warrant buying more of them.

This is a particular trick (or some might say, scam) for online retailers selling via social media platforms like Instagram. It’s very easy to click on the social post, go to the shop – an untried, untested, never heard of before retailer – and see a deal that says something like: “£15 for one, £25 for two, £30 for three”. But do you really need three knee massagers? Probably not. And, not only is this a buying trick, it can lead you to spending more money with scammers that won’t send you the item or process a refund.

The way to beat this trick is twofold: only visit legitimate online websites, rather than those through social media posts. Check online reviews of the stores too – independent review sites, not the ‘five star review’ testimonials anyone can make up and put on their own website. Secondly, only get multi-item discounts if you know you want and need the item. It would be prudent to order just one item the first time to try it out, and then if you like it you can re-order in multiples.

Trick Five: Scarcity Illusion

BUY IT NOW! 24 HOURS ONLY! How many times have you seen this on an online retailer website? Often accompanied by a ticking clock counting down to when the exclusive offer ends. If you log back on in two days’ time, chances are you’ll see the same offer still going.

The scarcity illusion is used by retailers all over the world, both in real stores and online. It drives the part of our brain that is also responsible for FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) – we can’t miss the chance to get the thing at a great price. In reality, things are usually not ‘last chance’ or ‘last ones left’, as this is a selling tactic.

The exception is with seasonal sales from reputable retailers, where you would expect to see your clothing size run out or a popular gift item on a 24-hour special before a holiday like Christmas. These are still selling tactics, but more likely to be a way to genuinely save on an item.

Once again, the trick here is to recognise if you actually need (not want) the item in question. Would you pay full price for it? If not, why not? (Another trick you’ll see is a ridiculously inflated price before the ‘mega discount’ – if you wouldn’t pay the inflated price, it’s because you know the item isn’t worth it, and so the discount isn’t a saving anyway).

Save With Delivery Passes

The first way to beat online retailers at their sneaky games is to join them: many will offer an annual pass that is a one-off payment and covers all delivery (next day is usually included) for a single fee between £10-£20. If you have a particular favourite clothing retailer, for example, and you’re likely to order more than twice a year from them, a delivery pass can save you money. The same goes for supermarket deliveries – if you’re always getting your groceries delivered, a pass can save a lot across the course of a year.

Use Comparison Websites

We’ve all heard of a certain meerkat related comparison site, but did you know there are online tools to help you find the cheapst price for the item you’re looking for?

CamelCamelCamel is a reputable site that can track the price of any item on Amazon. Set alerts for price drops and also track the price history to see if you are actually getting a good deal or if it’s been falsely inflated prior to the ‘discount’ period.

PriceRunner, PriceSpy UK and Idealo are all price comparison sites for thousands of items, so you can find the online retailer offering the best discount on the product you’re after. This is a great way to save with your online shopping, even though it takes just a few minutes longer, as the website does the legwork for you.

Get Group Discounts

Did you know that you can buy online with strangers to save money? It’s true – and it’s legitimate! Just as we have co-ops in real life for things like buying heating oil in bulk to reduce the overall price, and splitting the cost with your neighbours, you can do similar online. We have a whole article about it here.

Search for Discount Codes

Before you buy anything online, add everything you want to your basket and then open a new tab. Search ‘Retailer discount code’ and check out the offerings available. Click on the code to copy it and paste in the ‘promotional code or voucher’ box at checkout. You might have to try a few different ones to find one that works, but it can save you a lot of time.

Try an internet browser extension that will find codes for you to save the legwork, such as Honey which is operated by PayPal.

If you’re a regular customer at a retailer, you can also create an account, fill your basket, and then abandon it. Many online retailers will send you an email in a few hours’ time asking if you found everything you wanted, and include a discount code to entice you back. This is a less common approach than it used to be, as retailers have cottoned on to the fact customers do this, but it’s worth a try if you can’t find any valid online discount codes.

Use a Cashback Site

We love cashback sites like TopCashBack and Quidco, because it’s a way to get a little something back each time you spend online. The great thing is that they will often have exclusive discount codes for you to use which means you’ll still qualify for cashback AND get an immediate discount on your purchase.

Remember that if you shop via a cashback site and use a discount code that’s not approved by them, you might not qualify for cashback. So, it’s worth weighing up the cashback amount versus the discount percentage if you’re using an off-site discount code. For example, if you found a 5% discount code but could get 10% cashback, it makes more sense to not use the code and claim the cashback. But if you found a 10% discount code and only get 5% cashback, it’s worth using both (and risking not getting the cashback).

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Jasmine Birtles

Your money-making expert. Financial journalist, TV and radio personality.

Jasmine Birtles

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