In case you had any doubt that online invite only sample sales are the hottest e-commerce trend of the year, the recent coverage by TechCrunch and NY Times and millions of dollars spent on funding and acquisition in the space proved the point. Besides the leading startups, more and more retailers such as Saks are getting on board by offering their own versions of flash sales, as I predicted about a year ago. In addition, publishers like Daily Candy (Swirl) and Lucky magazine (Sales in a Flash) are playing with the concept.

What I’m most curious about is to look at the trend from the user/ shopper point of view and find out what is so appealing about this trend that makes us glued to our email alerts every day at noon (when majority of sample sales start), and even more – spend our money on designer goods in the middle of recession, all accompanied by the feeling of euphoria mixed with credit card bill anxiety. The deeper I digged into the addiction (my own as well, admittedly), the more signs lead me into research on compulsive shopping.

“Compulsive overspending is a legitimate disorder that affects approximately 6% (17,000,000) of the U.S. population.” Stanford University, 2006

Considering about 75% of them are actually online, and 38% shop for apparel online, you get a market share of almost 5,000,000 compulsive shoppers in search for clothes and accessories. Considering the top 3 sites in the online sample space in The US each have way above million members (although I’m sure many overlap), you can look at these stats from a different perspective. I’m at no way claiming that all their members have a disorder, I’m here to analyze and find correlations between certain consumer groups and their behavior.

The fact is these sample sale sites have definitely changed the way we shop online, and whether you actually have a compulsive disorder or just love a great bargain and can afford it, they affect our consumer behavior in many ways:

Convenience vs. Urgency – time pressure is a tricky thing that has a great power over our minds. Many researches have been made on the effect of time pressure on our decision making process. Example: While online shopping isn’t an emergency situation when our minds have to be necessarily logical, having a time clock ticking while trying to make a $500 purchase decision doesn’t always lead to intended results.

Consumption vs. Demand – you shop based on the inventory available on a certain site for 24 hours only (usually between 1-5 brands at a time), instead of shopping based on your needs and desires. Example: You never thought you needed another little black dress, until you saw it on sale, with a sign “In members carts” next to it. It alerts you that some of your “competitors” for this piece were more decisive, and if you won’t follow their steps asap that LBD will be gone forever. You instantly click on the dress to place it in your cart, which every e-commerce analyst will tell you is a half way to the final sale. Here the clock starts ticking, while you come up with creative excuses for yourself why this dress is necessary to add to your wardrobe. You call it an investment piece, which usually closes the deal.

Value vs. Price – discounting an expensive piece messes up with our minds, and creates a confusion between the price a piece costs and the price it’s worth, in our own terms. Example: $500 sounds like a great deal on a $1,000 valued dress, but only if you have that money in your disposal. You may see it as a $500 spend or savings, based on your point of view. I’m sure many of you tricked yourselves at some point into buying something based not on the real price, but on the money “saved” by its discount.

Mind manipulation isn’t a new invention in our consumerist society, but the online technology definitely helped to advance the methods used by retailers. Having a two-way direct communication with the consumer and being able to measure the interaction gave more tools to  retailers to control and dictate our experience.

I believe we will see more e-commerce sites “borrowing” some of these tools flash sales sites are using: limited time offers, private clubs and creative ways to present discounted merchandise as an attractive bargain.

Whether you will be joining their shopping game or Shopaholic Anonymous, it’s your choice – as long as you are fully aware of the experience.

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