Countdown timers, exclusive subscriber discounts, trending stickers and “you might also like” suggestions are normal to see when getting your fast fashion fix online.
On the surface, these may seem innocent enough – helping you save money, shop quicker and find your perfect outfit. But there’s a dark side.
These so-called “dark patterns” are used by websites and apps to manipulate you into spending more money and giving away your personal data. And in the lead up to Black Friday, this will only ramp up.
So, who is the worst offender in fast fashion? To find out, Rouge Media, experts in web design and marketing, analysed the sites of over 30 of the biggest fast fashion retailers and scored each for how many dark patterns shoppers experience before completing a purchase.
Chinese fast-fashion giant Shein is crowned the most manipulative online retailer, with at least eight instances of dark patterns being used as shoppers navigate through the home page, to new arrivals, to their basket and check out.
Techniques include time-limited discounts with countdowns, extra money-off for app sign-ups, delivery options ordered by most expensive first, suggesting other items you might like, and prompts to spend more to get a free gift or delivery.
Shein, despite being a mysterious and controversial brand, recently became the world’s largest online-only fashion company. What’s more, a recent study also found Shein is at the forefront of TikTok fashion culture, with #sheinhaul being viewed over 3.4 billion times and counting.
It’s clear Shein is hard to resist. And its excessive use of dark patterns may be why.
Missguided, FashionNova and Zaful are also avid users of dark patterns according to the study, with shoppers facing at least six different prompts to spend more money or give over personal data in exchange for discounts or a personalised experience.
“Hurry before it’s gone”, “£66.75 from free shipping! Keep shopping” and “Good choice…someone bought this at 12:31pm” are examples of the kind of messages analysts encountered before checking out.
Other fast fashion outlets that were pulled out by the analysts as using excessive dark patterns to influence their customers’ purchases were Boohoo and Boohoo-owned brands Pretty Little Thing and Misspap.
It seems fast fashion brands can do no wrong, despite questions being raised about their ethical and sustainable standards. Shoppers aren’t being put off though and that’s all down to fast fashion becoming a new form of addiction which critics say is being fuelled by the use of manipulative marketing and design practices (including dark patterns), free returns, hard-to-resist low prices and constant turnover of new products.
In contrast, two Spanish fashion retailers – Mango and Zara – were found to use the least dark patterns among the brands studied. The shopping experience on both sites is simple and spacious, with no time-pressure or scarcity techniques used to make you buy faster and spend more. Perhaps both brands’ history of being bricks and mortar stores have influenced the design of their customers’ digital experience.
The rise in popularity of online fast fashion has been triggered by the pandemic, social media becoming a new shopping channel and the decline of the high street. As a term, it was first coined in the early 2000s to describe the quick turnover of designs from catwalk to stores, shortening the timeframe and turnover of fashion. And it’s expected to have long lasting effects.
However, shoppers’ love of fast fashion seems in conflict with their views on sustainability. According to a GlobalData report, 37.3 percent of UK consumers agree retailers that place greater emphasis on sustainability are “more appealing”.
Andy Woods, Design Director at Rouge Media commented on the findings:
“It’s been really interesting to dive deep into the world of fast fashion to uncover how clever marketing and design techniques are being used to suck consumers into a never-ending loop of buy, wear, throw.
“Dark patterns are nothing new, but the sheer scale at which they’re now being used in online retail raises questions over the impact on young people who often rely on post-purchase payment services like Klarna to fund their shopping habits. While dark patterns certainly have their place in e-commerce web design, perhaps it’s time for the industry to take a step back and review their use.”