If you’ve ever been shopping online and thought I’d like to make a purchase, but I’d like it even more if the price was 10% cheaper, give this a tactic a try: Enter your items in the site’s shopping cart, but don’t buy anything. Then, sit back and wait for a special discount to arrive in your e-mail in-box.
Word has been spreading among shopping experts and consumers that it’s fairly common for e-retailers to offer special deals to shoppers who abandon their online shopping carts. Every digital shopping cart that’s filled but never purchased is viewed as a missed opportunity for retailers. To nudge shoppers into closing the deal, some sites regularly follow up abandoned carts with reminders, offers to help if you had “trouble checking out,” and sometimes discounts and other incentives sent via e-mail to customers.
Retailers use the e-mail followup as a strategy to boost sales among consumers who are on the fence. Understanding that retailers use the followup discount as a strategy, some consumers are in turn abandoning their shopping carts as a strategy of their own—a strategy to provoke the site into offering a discount that wouldn’t otherwise appear. For online shoppers, this is the equivalent of walking away during a haggling session with a seller at a flea market, or perhaps a car dealership. Now you can virtually “walk away” from an online purchase, and if the site truly wants to make the sale, it’ll follow you out the door, so to speak, and come up with a better offer.
(MORE: 10 Things That Cost Way More Outside the U.S.)
Reuters has reported that major retailers such as Land’s End, Best Buy, Home Depot, and Zappos all send messages following up after abandoned shopping carts, though not all e-mails come with special discounts. In a thread at Reddit, shoppers have been compiling a list of e-retailers that tend to offer discounts within a few days, or perhaps just a few hours, of a shopper abandoning an online shopping cart. The list, according to random consumers, includes lids.com, allposters.com, Overstock, Hanes.com, and Crocs.
Some of the followup messages are remarkably clever. Here’s part of an appropriately geeky, “Lord of the Rings”-themed e-mail sent by ThinkGeek to a shopper who abandoned a cart:
Much like Sauron, Timmy has a roving-but-less-evil eye that sees all. And from his home in Mordor (located in Fairfax, Virginia) he saw that you recently fancied our precious.
And so, humble hobbit, Timmy extends to you the coupon code RING009@BPJ3BP, good for $10 off your order of $50 or more.
(MORE: The Kickstarter Economy)
Often, deals similar to the one mentioned above are made available to customers who subscribe to retailer e-mails, and also via coupon code aggregators like RetailMeNot. But going out and hunting for a deal isn’t the same as having a retailer try to woo you back with a special “only for you” offer.
A Redditor identified only as “John Tesh” chimed in claiming that he was an online retailer, and offered these insights:
Almost all of us do this, but remember you have to get far enough into checkout to log in or enter your email address for it to work.
Also, many of us analyze profitability of the coupons per customer over time, so don’t be surprised if it works sometimes and not other times, or if the offers change. We try to figure out the most profitable thing that motivates you then offer you that.
(MORE: 12 Things You Should Always Haggle Over)
The Reuters story explains that companies have ways of limiting these sorts of discounts. A coupon code might only be able to be used once, or a consumer might be given a followup discount once—and never again. SmartMoney notes that all sorts of customer data can affect what kind of offers you see, ranging from where you live (if you live near a company warehouse, it’s easier to include free two-day shipping) to how you came to the site (clicking through an ad may make a discount less likely because the retailer has to give the search engine some cash).
As online shopping grows increasingly customized, it’s the customers who work the system in the smartest way who can expect the best deals. That’s how it works in real life while haggling at the flea market and the car dealership, and that’s also how it seems to now work on the Web.
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.
MORE: A Brief History of Online Shopping