How to create online sales

Retailers have used psychology for years to influence customers into spending or increasing their basket total. The psychology of spend is big business. But without a physical store, how do e-commerce merchants apply the same techniques?

It all comes back to one important book and methodology, which even though it was written in 1984, still highlights our needs as humans for specific interactions. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, written by Robert Cialdini, takes hundreds of influence methodologies and distils persuasion down into six universal needs or desires.

These are: 

  • Reciprocity
  • Scarcity
  • Authority
  • Consistency
  • Liking
  • Consensus

And whilst 1984 was pre-online shopping, these principles of influence still stand up to the test when applied to e-commerce.


Based on the theory that if you give something first, such as a gift, the recipient will be more likely to perform favours, see you in a favourable light, help and spend.  The perfume and beauty industry supply potential customers with testers and samples which triggers a feeling of being indebted to the brand. Free gifts or testers with every order not only lets customers sample the product, but also triggers a feeling of reciprocity.

However, how do you offer reciprocity when you can’t see your customers? 

Free shipping, a free gift with purchase, first month free, all come after the first sale, meaning that reciprocation in e-commerce can be difficult to achieve. However, there are a few things an online retailer can do. Such as try before you buy. Harper Wilde knows that bra shopping and fitting can be a chore. So they offer a free home try-on service, making sure their customers are completely satisfied with the product and fit. 

Try before you buy will work in certain industries, however a good global way of showing appreciation before you’ve even collected an email address in good quality helpful content. From style guides to “how to” videos, if a customer recognises your brand from a time when you’ve helped them, or educated them, they’re more likely to purchase from that store over a competitor. 


We’ve all been there, “one left in stock”, to come back later and it’s gone! Scarcity creates competition amongst customers and e-commerce merchants have been tapping into the scarcity effect, either by displaying low stock or last chance to buy banners to increase urgency. 

The scarcity effect helps speed up the purchase process and stops customers shopping around for better deals. Three common areas are:

  • A low stock display on the product page
  • A free delivery countdown timer
  • Last chance to buy

Take the example below, Hidden Fashion implemented a countdown to the end of their sale with real-time countdown so their customers can see the seconds slipping by until the offer ends.

ASOS uses the scarcity principle in two places on their store. In my wishlist, I’m automatically warned that the product is in low stock, using a warning amber colour. This is reiterated on the product page by the low stock banner below the size selector. 

However, be careful when using this tactic, as overuse, or fake claims to low stock, this can lead to customers becoming desensitised. 


Studies such as the infamous Milgram experiment have proven the impact authority has on decision making. By positioning your brand and store as an expert voice, you will gain trust from your customers. If your product has moving parts, show a video on how it works, or show your clothes on the catwalk and provide detailed product descriptions, showcasing the finer details of your products.

Imagery and video can play a large part in projecting authority, multiple product views (for example a 360 view of the product) can increase sales up to 58%. An important aspect of imagery is for it to be credible, so real products in real situations and no poorly photoshopped images! Finisterre place their products in the hardy conditions they are designed for, so not only showcase their product in their element but with clean clear imagery, dictate an air of outdoor expertise.


People will go to great lengths to appear consistent. Publicly stating something you want to achieve can drive you to complete it. As an e-tailer, you can use this to your advantage and gain small commitments from your customers, such as a newsletter sign ups or Facebook likes. 

From your storefront, you should project and advertise commitments made by other customers. “Best Seller” or “Most Popular” labels can massively boost sales of that particular product, make sure you’re stocked up! 

Amazon requests each customer to share their purchase on social media and ASOS uses #AsSeenOnMe that allows customers to show off their new products, all designed to show consistent commitments from customers, and to encourage potential shoppers to take the leap. Easy and free returns can help push undecided shoppers over the line, and once the goods are in their hands,  consistency and commitment can halt returns.


This may seem like a no-brainer, but your customers need to like your brand before they commit to purchase. Using real, clear images of your products and delivering what you promise, personalisation of marketing communications and storytelling go a long way in winning your customer’s hearts. 

You should treat your customers like a friend and humanisation of your brand can be great for how your brand is perceived. Good company ethics and culture are a good starting point, and supporting a good, relevant cause benefits the charity of your choosing.

TOMS “One for One” campaign is a famous case study as a brand using business for good. For every pair of shoes purchased, a pair is distributed to someone in need. Toms extended their charity campaigns to include providing improved access to water, safer maternity care and providing glasses and vision. Each charity has a product aligned with it, so for example, each purchase of TOMS Eyewear provide a person in need with a full eye exam by trained medical professionals.


When people are uncertain, they look to the actions and behaviours of their friends, family and peers. In an increasingly connected world, this can include complete strangers on the internet, especially if they share a review of your product.

Otherwise known as social proof, reviews and ratings are critical to the shopper’s decision-making process. 79% of customers trust reviews as much as a personal recommendation. Show off your happy customers and give your star reviews pride of place right next to the product description. And don’t be afraid to show a few reviews that don’t meet the 5* mark, it actually helps prove that you’re a real company with real customers, and some of those customers may not be 100% satisfied or are simply having a bad day!

A way to use consensus and increase your AOV is cross-selling and recommended products. By displaying “Customers who bought this also bought” next to related products, merchants can drive sales by tapping into the crowd mentality. Make sure your recommendations are relevant and useful to the customer, as seemingly random recommendations can hurt your credibility.

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