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Online shopping traps caught out 8.5 million people in the last year

11 Gorffennaf 2023

Tuesday 11 July

Online shopping traps caught out 8.5 million people in the last year

  • Deceptive online retail tactics lead to 8.5 million people buying something they didn’t want, need or came to regret.

  • Two thirds of people affected by these online traps said it negatively impacted household finances (an estimated 5.6 million customers).

  • Misleading or difficult to find information and ‘drip pricing’ head the top five most common tactics used by unscrupulous online retailers.

  • Citizens Advice calls for legislation to keep pace with the tactics of some online retailers.

One in six people (8.5 million) ended up buying something they didn’t want, need or came to regret because of online shopping traps used by some retailers. This is according to new research by Citizens Advice released today.

Deceptive online tactics commonly used include auto-renewing subscriptions and ‘drip pricing’ techniques - where a website or app hooks a shopper in with headline prices, only to reveal at checkout the real price is higher when necessary add-ons are factored in. These tactics, while legal, are catching shoppers off guard and leading to serious buyers’ remorse. 

At a time of mounting financial pressures on households, these online shopping traps cost consumers almost £2.1 billion last year through purchases they didn't want, need or came to regret. Worryingly, two thirds of those who fell victim to these traps said it negatively impacted household finances (an estimated 5.6 million customers).

It’s costing people time as well as money, with people spending, on average, one day per year dealing with the consequences of these features, including chasing refunds or making a complaint afterwards. 

With the government already targeting subscription traps in the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, the charity is calling for proposals to go further and ban auto-renewing subscriptions. However the charity says while clamping down on certain tactics is a start, it also wants to see new fit-for-purpose regulations and clear obligations for retailers when it comes to consumers’ interests and website or app design.

Citizens Advice reveals the 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 consumers to compare prices across retailers.

3. Subscription traps 

A website or app offers a subscription, often as a free trial, but consumers 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’). Our previous research found that these scarcity tactics can result in consumers 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. 

The stark knock-on effects of these tactics include over half (51%) of consumers affected experiencing a negative impact on their mental health. Many consumers also reported feeling frustrated (39%), anxious (21%) and ripped off (29%). Over two thirds of shoppers said their trust and confidence in online shopping was negatively impacted.

Bethan’s story - “I was really angry. Why should someone have to opt out of a subscription when buying something?”

Bethan* signed up to a subscription with an online retailer without realising. 

“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”.

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.”

 -ends-

For more information contact: press.office@citizensadvice.org.uk

Tel: 03000 231 080

Out-of-hours contact number: 0845 099 0107

We give people the knowledge and confidence they need to find their way forward - whoever they are, and whatever their problem.

Notes to editors

  1. Citizens Advice commissioned Opinium to undertake an online survey of 4,003 UK adults, to understand more about their behaviours online, and experience of deceptive design practices. The fieldwork was conducted between 17-23 May 2023. Responses were weighted to be nationally representative. Questions asked included:

    • Thinking of the past 12 months , were there any occasions where you purchased items or services that you didn't want, need, or came to regret buying because of the design of the platform you were using? 16% of online shoppers replied yes. The current UK population was used to estimate the number of consumers across the UK this represents.

    • Please think of all the experiences you may have had where you bought something you didn't want, need, or came to regret buying because of the way an online platform was designed. To what extent did these experiences have a negative impact, if at all, on each of the following? Your household finances. 65% (net) reported at least a slight negative impact.

    • And on these occasions where you purchased items or services that they didn't want, need, or came to regret buying  because of the design of the platform you were using , were they for any of the following reasons…? Please select all that have occured in the  past 12 months.:

      • 27% said they bought the wrong thing because the information was misleading or difficult to find

      • 25% said I spent more than I wanted to on an item because it was initially advertised as being cheaper (used to estimate drip pricing). 

      • 23% said they signed up to a subscription without intending to or not knowing all of the conditions. Polling also found:

    • In the past 12 months, have you at any point ended up in a subscription without intending to for any of the following reasons? 26% reported that they had.

    • Are you currently paying for subscription(s) you do not use? 11% said yes.

    • How much are you paying each month for subscriptions you do not use? 65% reported that they had paid more than £10 per month.

    • 22% said I was rushed into making a purchase because of limited stock claims.

    • 21% said I was rushed into making a purchase because of countdown timers. 

  1. ‘Consumers spent £2.1 billion last year on purchases they didn't want, need or came to regret.’ On average each consumer who reported that they had bought a product that they didn’t need, want or came to regret because of the way an online platform was designed, reported that this has happened 3.5 times. On average £78.90 had been spent per product. These numbers have been used to estimate the cost per consumer, which has been used to estimate population level detriment.

  2. Where consumers reported they had purchased items or services that they didn’t want, need or came to regret buying because of the design of the platform they were using, they were asked if they took any action the last time this happened (including returns, calls to complain), and were asked “how much time do you estimate you spent on these actions in total?”. On average consumers who took action reported they spent 2.5 hours on these actions the last time they experienced this. This has been multiplied by 3.5 (the average number of times this has happened) to estimate the time spent per affected person per year.

  3. To what extent did these experiences have a negative impact, if at all, on each of the following? Your mental health.” 51% reported at least a slight negative impact. 

  4. And how did this last experience make you feel? 39% reported they felt frustrated, 29% reported ripped-off, 21% reported anxious.

  5. Please think of  all experiences  you may have had where you bought something you didn't want, need, or came to regret buying because of the way an online platform was designed. To what extent did these experiences have a negative impact, if at all, on each of the following? 

    1.  Your confidence in shopping online for products and services. 66% said it had at least a slight negative impact.

    2. Your trust in online retailers. 68% said it had at least a slight negative impact.

Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.

Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.

Citizens Advice helped 2.55 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2021-22. And we had 40.6 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.

Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 18,500 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.

You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or 0808 223 1144 for Welsh language speakers.