Save, make, understand money

Household Bills

Five online shopping tactics catching out Brits

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

One in six people have been reeled in by “deceptive” online retail tactics, with millions saying it negatively impacted their household finances, a charity reveals.

More than eight million people ended up buying something they didn’t want, need or came to regret because of online shopping traps used by some retailers.

Subscription auto-renewals, and ‘drip pricing’ techniques where a website or app hooks a shopper in with headline prices, only to reveal the real price at the checkout is higher when necessary add-ons are factored in, are common tactics.

According to Citizens Advice, while these tactics are legal, they are catching many shoppers off guard, with some cases leading to serious buyers’ remorse.

It said last year, these traps cost shoppers more than £2bn through purchases they didn’t want or need.

For two-thirds of those lured in by these online sales tactics (5.6 million), they said it negatively impacted household finances.

But as well as money, it’s also costing people time, with shoppers spending one day a year chasing refunds or making a complaint.

Meanwhile, for others, it’s having a knock-on effect on their mental health. Four in 10 said it has left them frustrated, 21% said they were left anxious and 29% said they felt ripped off.

For two-thirds polled in the nationally representative survey of 4,003 people, their trust and confidence in online shopping was negatively impacted.

‘The default shouldn’t be a subscription’

In one case highlighted by the charity, Bethan said she signed up to a subscription with an online retailer without realising.

She said: “As a mum, I use this online retailer quite often because they get packages to me quickly. The first time I noticed they had signed me up for their premium service was when I noticed a charge on my statement. When I spoke to their customer services they said that by default the subscription is highlighted and I would have had to change it to not be signed up.

“It makes me so mad. It’s just ridiculous and underhand that a company can get away with tricking people into signing up for their premium service. I think I’m now savvy enough and will make sure I deselect the default before then pressing the buy button, although I should not have to, as the default shouldn’t be a subscription.”

The Government is targeting subscription traps as part of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, but the charity is calling for a complete ban on auto-renewing subscriptions.

Most common online shopping traps

Citizens Advice lists these top five online shopping traps used by retailers in the last year:

1) Misleading or difficult to find information 

A company is selective in what information it presents about a product or service. For example, this might mean labelling a product as ‘best value’, when the retailer also sells cheaper versions.

2) Drip pricing 

A website or app leads with a headline price, but at checkout the final price is higher, once necessary conditions are applied. This makes it harder for shoppers to compare prices across retailers.

3) Subscription traps 

A website or app offers a subscription, often as a free trial, but shoppers either don’t fully understand what they’re signing up for, and/or don’t realise this will automatically roll into a paid subscription.

4) Limited stock claims 

A website or app shows something as ‘low in stock’ or popular (‘100 people looked at this in the last 24 hrs’). Previous Citizens Advice research found that these scarcity tactics can result in people spending more than they intended to, with 28% reporting feeling pressured to make a purchase.

5) Countdown timers 

Similar to limited stock claims, this pressure tactic involves having a countdown timer for when a sale ends.

Matthew Upton, acting executive director of policy and advocacy at Citizens Advice, said: “With tactics like these, some online retailers are making it even harder for people to shop smart. The result is consumers wasting billions, at a time when many can least afford it.

“If we want to stop firms taking advantage of consumers in this way, we’ll need legislation that can really keep pace with online retail.”