Widely-used online marketing techniques designed to unstill a sense of urgency into consumers look set to come under greater scrutiny following a probe by Which?, the UK consumer champion.
January’s Which? Travel magazine features the results of an investigation into travel promotions that include ‘hurry’ and ‘book now’-type calls to action, countdown clocks and scarcity claims.
Among the traditional tour operators and travel agents highlighted, lastminute.com and Expedia were also picked out for promoting flash sale deals appeared to promise more than they delivered.
A lastminute.com flight and hotel deal to Paris was found to reduce in price the day after a deal promoted as “exclusive” and with the strapline “Act fast to get the best deals”.
An Expedia flash sale featuring a countdown clock and the proclamation “Book now or miss out” was found to be cheaper two weeks after the sale having briefly risen immediately after it finished.
Lastminute.com told which? it was never its intention to mislead the customer and Expedia said it would investigate the issues raised by the consumer watchdog.
However, the investigation raised wider issues about the use of such psychological tactics to rush lookers into becoming bookers.
Steve Dunne, chief executive of marketing agency Digital Drums, said: “This is all designed to get the consumer to feel a certain sense of urgency.
“There are different stages of marketing but the real challenge is to push people over the line and turn an inquiry into a purchase.
“It’s a common practice, it’s a technique that’s as old as the hills. However, today everything is being constantly researched on mobile and tablet.
“Ten years ago people would look at something once or twice, today they take the pulse of the market minute by minute.
“I would always urge companies to be as transparent as possible and if prices do fall do a John Lewis and within reason offer to refund the gap if they find it cheaper.”
Which? has reported its findings to the UK’s two regulators Trading Standards and the Advertising Standards Authority and has vowed to keep an eye on the sector.
Steven Mason, senior partner at Travlaw, said firms that mislead customers could be in breach of the UK’s Unfair Trading Regulations or Committee of Advertising Practice code.
Firms could have their adverts banned, or at worst be found guilty by magistrates and fined up to £5,000 for every offence – every instance of the advert being viewed and complained about.
Mason pointed out that greater use of yield management among suppliers means third parties must be aware of the “toxic mix” of fluid pricing and fixed-price deals.
“The industry needs to be careful of layering phrases like ‘special offer’ or ‘sale’ on deals when product is subject to fluctuating prices,” he said.
“Consumers are getting better at understanding today’s price may not be tomorrow’s, or this morning’s may not be this afternoon’s.
“But there’s still a minority who fail to understand what everyone else does, or see some advantage in pretending not to understand. The big issue is when something is actively misleading.”