Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Why we need to stamp down on online pressure selling tactics

2 December 2022

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday behind us, it’s now only a few weeks until Christmas. But it seems like every time you go onto a shopping website you’re bombarded with alerts telling you that a sale is about to end or there’s only three t-shirts left in that colour. These alerts are designed to put you under pressure to keep spending. And if you’re struggling to control your spending because of a mental health problem, they can be very hard to ignore. 

That’s why we are really pleased to see the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – who monitor consumer markets to make sure consumers get a fair deal – launch enforcement work against online retailers who might be breaking consumer laws. 

Convenience at a cost

Two years ago we published a report that looked at the experiences of people with mental health problems when it comes to online shopping. We found that being able to shop online can often be a lifeline for people who find it very difficult to leave the house because of their mental health. 

But we also found that online shopping can have a negative impact on your finances and mental health. For example, three in ten (29%) people with mental health problems spent more than they can afford when shopping online. Often people buy things that they don’t need or use and this can drive negative feelings such as stress and low mood. 

“Impulse buys cause guilt which builds up to depression.” Expert by experience

We also found that those of us with mental health problems are more likely to experience such harms. Partly this is due to common symptoms of mental health conditions like low mood and increased impulsivity, which can lead us to spending too much when unwell. But the way that shopping sites are designed can exacerbate these symptoms and make it even harder to control what we spend. 

“If I’m feeling low sometimes I feel like I deserve a treat to “cheer me up” so I will buy myself something that I really can’t afford on an impulse buy.” Expert by experience

Spend, spend, spend

There are three main ways that online retailers will try to get you to spend more money. The first of these is to make it easier to buy things, for example allowing you to save your card details and make a purchase in just one click. If you’re struggling to control your impulses, this can be especially damaging. 

Secondly, sites will use messages to put you under pressure to spend now. This can include banners about a sale that’s ending (even though sometimes a very similar sale starts again straight after) or a message saying there’s limited stock. We heard from Research Community members about how they felt they would miss out if they didn’t then buy something. 

“When you’re told x number of people are looking at an item or there’s only so many left, irrational panic sets in and I’ve made foolish purchases.” Expert by experience

Finally, shopping sites will personalise the customer experience. Being recommended items based on what you’ve just bought or receiving emails telling you about what others like you are buying can encourage you to buy that extra item. 

Clamping down on pressure selling

We felt more needed to be done to clamp down on some of these tactics and make sure people aren’t being pressured to spend more than they can afford. There are some consumer laws around pressure selling and misleading customers, but they are more focused on shopping in a pre-digital age. 

That’s why it’s really great to see that the CMA have announced they are going to be investigating online selling practices that use ‘urgency’ claims, like countdown clocks for sales ending soon. In particular they are looking at Emma Sleep and whether they have misled customers about discounts that were meant to be ending. 

We called for the CMA to do something like this and hopefully it will send a message to online retailers that they should not be pressuring people to keep spending. We look forward to seeing the outcome of the investigation. 

“Online shopping is invaluable but overly invasive. We wouldn’t allow a sales assistant to follow us home and keep bombarding us with products and offers and the online experience should not facilitate this.” Expert by experience 

To learn more about the link between online financial harms and mental health problems read our ‘Safety net’ report.