Flash sales and daily deals from the likes of Groupon and Gilt succeed in two key ways: First, the big, prominently featured discount off the original retail price gets consumers excited by the prospect of a great value; second, since deals are only available for a severely limited time, consumers feel pressured to buy right away. Together, these forces cause normally smart consumers to skip key steps in the buying process—namely, pausing to think about how much the item is actually worth, and shopping around.
Skipping the former step increases the chances of what might be called “Groupon remorse,” the scenario in which the initial excitement of the deal is replaced by the pit-in-the-stomach thought of “Why in the world did I buy that?”
As for the latter, there’s an assumption that there’s not much reason to comparison shop for blink-and-you’ll-miss-them online deals. In fact, by pausing to shop around, or by hesitating in any way, the consumer runs the risk of (God forbid!) missing out on the deal.
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On the surface, flash deals often seem amazing, giving the strong impression that there’s no possibility of even better deals lurking elsewhere online or in stores. The fact that these deals are only offered for a single day bolsters the idea that they can’t be beat: The merchandise in this flash sale is marked down so significantly that the retailer can only afford to offer it for a mere 24 hours.
But, as a New York Times Style story recently revealed, there are many instances in which merchandise featured in “amazing” flash deals was available at cheaper prices elsewhere. For example:
By design, snagging flash deals has become something of a competitive sport, especially when it comes to fashion and clothing, per the Times:
To win, you must be among the first customers to put an item into a virtual cart, then commit to buying it minutes later or else watch as it — poof! — disappears from the cart. As those precious seconds tick by, there is hardly time to comparison-shop on other Web sites.
The limited-time, limited-availability construct—which is similar to what we see behind the McDonald’s McRib craze and Disney’s “DVD Vault” marketing pushes—simultaneously increases consumer interest and heightens the pressure on the consumer to “Act Now!” Think about this: These forces do little in terms of actually convincing the shopper of the worthiness and value of the item in question. Instead, they work at a deeper psychological level, causing the consumer to act mainly out of a feeling of not wanting to miss out on something.
The moral is: The sudden presence of a limited-time deal is no reason to act irrationally. Consider the purchase the same way you would in any other circumstance. Pause and think about how much you actually want the item, and how much it’s actually worth. Shop around for the best price. Take a close look at your most recent credit card statement, along with your closet, both of which may be crowded with foolish impulse purchases.
Then, go ahead and make your decision.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
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