Why it’s your fault that your customers wait for sales and discounts, and what you can do about it

customer conditioning neuro blog

Why it’s your fault that your customers wait for sales and discounts, and what you can do about it

The Boxing Day sales have just passed and now the January sales are in full swing. It appears there’s always a sale event to look forward to…at least for our customers anyway. In recent years, it appears that sales aren’t always a win for business.


Why sales aren’t always as lucrative as they seem


The abundance of sale events in recent years appears to have conditioned shoppers to wait until the sales before spending, triggering a drought for businesses during the weeks preceding and following them.

Big and small retailers alike are susceptible to the impact of the save-sale-shop phenomenon. During Black Friday in 2014 Argos, a huge British retailer, was hit hard. Despite a 45% increase in transactions on the day, sales were flat in the preceding weeks, resulting in lost profits.


Consumers are being conditioned to wait until the sales before spending


Your customers have been conditioned in that they’ve learnt to wait until the sales to shop because of the big discounts they’ve come to expect. The theory of conditioning was founded by psychologist Ivan Pavlov, through the investigation of dogs’ natural salivary response to being fed. Pavlov rang a bell and then fed his dogs, which after repeated pairings resulted in the ringing of the bell alone stimulating salivation. Your sales are making your customers salivate.

Over time, consumers have learnt to associate the sales with excellent discounts, which causes sales to trigger buying behaviour. This sale-shop association is reinforced when customers experience the buzz from getting a discounted item during sales. It is also reinforced by the fact shoppers are conditioned to expect a certain percentage off before shopping, down to the large discounts big retailers are able to offer.


How you can optimise your site to keep business booming during sales


With more of us than ever shopping online as opposed to in store, Ecommerce has a vital role to play when it comes to generating business.  We Are Social reported that 77% of UK Internet users made an online purchase in 2015, with PFS web reporting the UK e-commerce market being the strongest in Europe and the third strongest in the world.

In order to compete in the online marketplace and increase sales, it’s clear that your e-commerce site must be optimised to provide an excellent customer experience. Here are 6 tips for how you can avoid conditioning your customers into waiting for the sales before they shop:


How to not condition your customers into waiting for a sale


1. Hold Secret Sales

hold secret sales


It’s incredibly important not to make sales a regular thing. Additionally, holding sales on predictable days of the year (such as Black Friday) is exactly what will condition your customer put off buying the product they want there and then.

Instead, throw what is known as a ‘Secret Sale’, only advertised to your current customers. This helps build rapport and strengthen relationships with your existing customer base, making them feel valued and part of an exclusive group, which in turn makes the sale more attractive.

Those customers who are part of your secret sales scheme could also be incentivised to recommend a family member or friend to join the scheme too. This will help you grow your customer base, gaining new customer details for future marketing endeavours.


2. Skip the cart and go straight to checkout

 skip basket

At first glance this tip may appear risky but keep reading. We’re not suggesting you do this for first time visitors but for those who have abandoned their baskets. For this group, when remarketing their abandoned basket contents to them, consider taking them straight to the checkout so you don’t leave any additional time for them to reconsider their purchase choices or hunt for discounts.


3. Use scarcity and urgency to motivate your visitors to buy

 use scarcity

We are cognitively biased to perceive things in low supply as more desirable and are prepared to pay more for them. Psychologists have also found that urgent situations cause us to suspend conscious thought and act quickly. Apply scarcity and urgency to your site in the following ways to help move customers through to conversion:


Tick Point  Show stock levels when they’re low on product pages

Tick Point  Show how many customers are currently viewing a product and how many units have been sold

Tick Point  Include a countdown timer on your checkout

Tick Point  Optimise copy, using words such as ‘hurry’ and ‘limited time’

Tick Point  Release limited edition products

Tick Point  Take away the option to save an item for later so people don’t delay purchasing





4. Give people instant access where possible

 give instant access

We don’t like to be kept waiting, so if you’re selling items which can be downloaded instantly after purchase (such as games and eBooks) ensure you emphasise instant access as a value point to your customer on the product page. The instant gratification can be too tempting to resist, motivating the customer to purchase.


5. Surprise your customer with a gift

 free gift

The reciprocity principle is incredibly strong; we feel the need to give back to those who give to us. Combine this with the element of surprise by receiving a gift you really weren’t expecting and the intensity we feel to reciprocate increases.

Those of you familiar with the sandwich chain Pret a Manger will have heard about (or even received) the free food they give at random. This is a great example of ‘surprise reciprocity’ that keeps their customers coming back for more.


Tick Point  Use ‘surprise reciprocity’ with your customers in the following ways:

Tick Point  Refund their shipping costs and notify them of this in their order confirmation email

Tick Point  Add free gifts (such as product samples) to their order. Make sure you make it clear it’s free.

Tick Point  Upgrade standard delivery to next day for free


Make sure you take care and use surprise reciprocity sparingly however, or you’ll condition your customers to expect free gifts with all of their purchases!


6. Don’t hold a sale this year


By not jumping on the bandwagon and not holding a sale this year can help to ‘uncondition’ your customers. If you’ve repeatedly held sales on predictable dates (such as Boxing Day) your customers will likely be expecting you to reduce product prices and may be saving items they want to buy for later in anticipation.

By not holding a sale, your customers will eventually realise that they’ll need to pay full price. This way your customers are more inclined to shop with you year round and they’ll likely proceed to buy the products they’ve been waiting to anyway.


If you are going to have a sale, here are 5 tips to make sure you do it right


If you’re planning to hold a sale this year, take note of the following 6 tips to ensure you get the most from it:


1. Don’t discount your entire store


If we were to give you one of the following products as a gift, which would you rather receive?


headphones 1 - johnlewis.comheadphones 2 - johnlewis.com


Many of you would’ve been drawn to the higher priced product. Maybe you thought it looks of better quality. What you were likely influenced by is the price, associating the more expensive product as being better simply because it costs more.

This is one big cognitive shortcut that has been instilled in us over time; you get what you pay for. This is especially true when shopping online, as we have little way to objectively assess the quality of a product so we use this shortcut to make decisions quickly on what to buy.

This is a key reason why you need to be careful when holding a sale. If you discount your entire site, it can simultaneously lessen the overall perception of your store’s quality.


To tackle this, try leaving part of your store at full price. This will do two things. Firstly, you’ll maintain your customer’s perception of your store’s overall quality and the higher priced items will be more desirable. Two, by having high priced items next to similar items on sale (such as high priced t-shirts next to discounted ones), by contrast the sale items look like a fantastic deal as we’re buying the same product of the same quality but cheaper.


full price item sale item











2. Get rid of forced account creation


It doesn’t get more annoying than when you’ve added an item to your basket and you’re ready to buy, but before you can proceed to checkout (the next logical step in a customers’ thought process) you have to create an account.

Is it really essential to store your customers’ details on your website? Your customer might not even intend to shop with you again and including the account creation step induces further psychological friction, reducing the likelihood they will convert.


Apple guest checkout - apple.co.uk


So don’t force your customer to create an account and give them the option to checkout as a guest instead.


3. Offer exclusive early access to sales

early access to sale

If your customers are expecting the sales, make the most of it and get something in return. Use the power of reciprocity this season by offering your site visitors early access to sale deals if they sign-up to your mailing list (e.g. ‘sign up to our mailing list to get access to exclusive January discounts’). Due to reciprocity, they’ll be happy to give over their email in exchange for early access to the sale. You’ll reap the rewards of the sale before it’s even begun by gaining customer information you can use for marketing efforts later on.


4. Ensure your site is mobile responsive

mobile responsive sale

It is crucial that your site is optimised for mobile. According to Interactive Media in Retail Group, 51% of UK online sales between November and January involved hand-held devices. In 2015, smartphones accounted for 36% of all traffic on Black Friday. It’s vital that your site is mobile responsive in order to convert as much mobile traffic as possible.


5. State the obvious

sale state the obvious

People are ‘cognitive misers’, meaning we don’t like spending time actively thinking about how to do something or hunting for information, especially when online shopping! Make it easy for your customers to identify discounted products during your sale:


Tick Point  Show before and after prices

Tick Point  Display percentage discount

Tick Point  Make price reductions stand out with contrasting colours

Tick Point  Have a page for sale items which is included and stands out on your site navigation

Tick Point  Add ‘stickers’ to items on sale in the category pages


6. Make use of your analytics data


Analytics data is a gold mine when it comes to optimising your website. You can use analytics when optimising your site for a sale to boost conversions and revenue in the following ways:

Check your top internal search keywords to identify popular products and product categories searched for on your site. If these are on sale, ensure they’re easily accessible from the homepage, through displaying them in a banner of most popular discounted items for example.

For high traffic landing pages targeted at specific keywords, if you’re putting items on sale relevant to that keyword (e.g. the keyword is ‘professional digital cameras’ and your professional digital cameras are on sale) make it clear they’re discounted on the landing page.


With these tips you can ensure that your website is generating as much revenue and conversions as possible before, during and after the sales. We’d love to hear your thoughts so be sure to post in the comments section and we’ll be in touch.

Written by Indiana Cheetham

Indiana is a Junior Conversion Optimiser at Neuro Web Marketing. She holds a degree in psychology and conducts research to identify why site visitors aren't converting. Indiana has a deep interest in the application of psychological principles, behavioural economics and persuasion within conversion optimisation.

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