Every day, consumers are met with marketing tactics that aim to speed up the buying process, from money-off incentives to limited time offers.
Savvier consumers are aware of these not-so-subtle ways to lure them into stores and to buy online but some brands are using more questionable tactics to entice people to buy on less familiar retail channels such as mobile.
Analysis by user experience design agency Sigma shows that some retailers are using techniques to encourage users to share their data or complete a purchase that could also cause them confusion. These include collecting data before a user can checkout, using a countdown to pressure consumers into buying quickly, or using specific language to encourage people to sign up to a subscription service rather than make a one-off purchase.
The research claims retailers including Amazon, River Island and women’s fashion site JustFab are among those using of some of these practices.
For example, it suggests the way Amazon encourages users to sign up to its Amazon Prime service could be confusing. The mobile site has a yellow button in the checkout process with the text ‘free one-day delivery – pay later’ at the checkout, which users may not realise means they are signing up to a 30-day free trial that rolls into a monthly subscription, unless they read the small print below. Amazon declined to comment.
Meanwhile, JustFab is accused of using “scare tactics” to convince users to sign up to its subscription service by advertising special offers for VIP members only and displaying a countdown graphic for the discount on the site.
The onus is more and more on the general public to be rigorous in checking exactly what they are signing up to.
Jane Frost, Market Research Society
The report suggests it is not clear that by signing up to be a VIP member customers will be charged £35 on a monthly basis. But Shawn Gold, corporate marketing officer at TechStyle Fashion Group, which owns JustFab, denies this and says it would be “very costly” to the business to have someone sign-up for one of its offers without them knowing what they are signing up for.
“If they cancel and don’t continue on as a customer, it is a losing proposition for us,” says Gold. “To avoid this, we have over 14 notifications in the process of purchasing and you must check a box that you know what you are signing up for.”
He adds that customers also receive an email confirming the above and at the beginning of each month they receive an email with a personalised selection, reminding them what they signed up for and that they can skip a month or cancel before they are charged.
Despite these assurances, if brands do use practices that confuse customers it could get in the way of a burgeoning trend towards buying on mobile, as research by Adobe shows a 54% year-on-year increase in visits to retail sites from smartphones in 2016.
The Adobe research also shows that purchase conversion rates on desktop remain 2.6 times higher than on smartphones, partly because users are experiencing stumbling blocks when trying to check out on mobile retail sites.
Navigation (28%), the ability to see images on a bigger screen (23%) and the ease of entering payment information (17%) are listed as the top motivations for switching from mobile to a desktop to complete a purchase.
These stumbling blocks may be down to poor design of the mobile website or they could be the result of a brand deploying what Sigma’s report calls ‘dark’ practices.
“It’s important to understand the difference between bad design and dark user experience patterns,” says Simon Wissink, business development consultant at Sigma. “People might have a negative experience on a website because [of] bad user experience design, whereas dark patterns are premeditated – they are well thought out and based on behavioural psychology.”
Jane Ostler, managing director of media and digital at Kantar Millward Brown, says any intervention by retailers during the mobile buying process should have the sole aim of providing helpful customer service, rather than pressurising consumers into a particular course of action.
“Brands will only gain consumer trust and repeat use if they act honourably, and use the data they collect to offer useful support. This could take the form of relevant product reviews or offers, and intervening with live chat functionality, for example, if the customer seems to be having difficulty in completing a purchase.”
It is not just consumers’ cash that brands are after. The Sigma study claims River Island prioritises data collection over user experience by not allowing shoppers to checkout without going through a lengthy process of creating an account, where data such as their email address and date of birth is collected.
River Island was contacted but declined to comment.
Jane Frost, CEO at the Market Research Society, is seeing this practice happening more as companies look to collect additional information before checkout. She says: “These pages are often laid out in a confusing way, so that it’s unclear to consumers which information they have to enter in order to complete their purchase and which is technically an optional extra.”
Frost also believes that tick-boxes allowing consumers to opt-in or opt-out of sharing data on ecommerce sites tend to be placed in “less than ethical locations”. She adds: “They are often designed to confuse consumers into agreeing to share as much as possible. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that the onus is more and more on the general public to be rigorous in checking exactly what they are signing up to.”
There’s a fine line to tread between effective marketing activities and ensuring behaviour is ethically waterproof.
Chris Daly, CIM
Chris Daly, CEO at The Chartered Institute of Marketing, says that mobile can provide some “interesting new customer data points”, from collecting details or monitoring behaviour, but warns that “marketers must be careful not to fall down the ‘dark user experience’ rabbit hole”.
He says: “There’s a fine line to tread between effective marketing activities and ensuring behaviour is ethically waterproof.”
Although new data regulations will come into force in 2018, the rules on these types of practices are not clear. Wissink at Sigma says it may not be feasible to monitor these practises because “they happen on such a large scale” and patterns are difficult to define as “absolutely a dark pattern”, since it could be a case of poor design.
He says it is for businesses, especially design teams, to take responsibility for being ethical. “That isn’t always easy because within larger retail organisations a lot of the products are sold online and they have certain demands over conversion rates and numbers sold,” he adds. “And there might be pressure from above to implement some of these things.”
Ultimately, businesses need to take responsibility for their actions and to ensure they are doing everything within their power to give consumers what they need to make an informed decision when buying on mobile. Failure to do so will result in consumers simply going elsewhere.