The psychology of discounts

January 12, 2015
Comments Off on The psychology of discounts

By Thijs de Valk

the psychology of discounts

Discounts are something everybody uses, especially when you want people to buy a certain product. But there are a lot of different ways to actually give a discount. In today’s post I’ll go into the psychology of discounts and what kind of discounts work best for most people. But let me start by explaining why discounts work in the first place.

Why do discounts work?

Most discounts work on the principle of urgency, as the discounts are only available for a specific period of time. If they don’t buy the product now at the discounted price, they’re likely to miss out on saving some money.

And that anticipation of missing out is exactly why discounts work. According to the Pleasure Principle and the Regulatory Focus Theory people seek pleasure and avoid pain. The anticipation of missing out on a discount is definitely a pain people will want to avoid.

Different discounts

As I’ve said, there are a lot of ways of giving your customers a discount. You can give them free products if they buy certain (amounts) of items, free shipping, a fixed price off, a percentage off, etc. You can even give your customers a discount on top of another discount.

But some of these discounts actually do work better than others. For instance, people prefer to get 50% more of the same product for the same price than save 33% on the price, even though that comes down to exactly the same thing. Also, people like it better when you give them a 25% discount on top of a 20% discount, instead of a single 40% discount. And yes, again, this comes down to the same exact discount.

On top of that, discounts are regarded as relative. What I mean by this, is that a $10 discount off a $100 product will be regarded as much less than a $10 off a $20 product. The discount is exactly the same, but it’s relatively smaller in the first discount. So if you give people a fixed $10 discount, don’t count on selling a lot of $100+ products.


Wording has a lot of impact on how people perceive your discounts. For instance, “Get $ off” emphasizes achieving a gain, while “Save $” emphasizes avoiding a loss. You should test which kind of wording works best for your specific company. This basically depends on your customers; are they more likely to achieve a gain or more likely to avoid a loss?

In general, though, it’s been found that a wording like “Get $ off” will motivate people to buy more, even if the other products are not actually on sale.

Duration of the discount

Unfortunately, I could not find a lot of research or posts done on the duration of promotions or discounts. Personally, I’d not leave a sale or promotion period running longer than a couple of weeks. If the period lasts longer than that, you’re risking negating the urgency principle.

Think about how long you actually want the discount to last. And make sure you communicate this clearly to your potential customers. If you have actual salespersons it is mentioned that a maximum of 6 weeks for a promotion is more than long enough. Apparently, employees can’t (or won’t) focus on a promotion after 6 weeks. However, I think 6 weeks is pretty long, especially for online shops.

Pros and cons to discounts

After all this information, I feel compelled to give you some pros and cons to discounts. The con I have to discounts is pretty simply: don’t overuse discounts. Our good friend Chris Lema is actually completely against them, saying discounts just don’t work. While we reserve a somewhat more moderate opinion for ourselves, we do completely understand where he’s coming from.

There’s a risk to discounts. The risk that people get used to not paying full price in your store. That’s why I’m telling you to be careful with discounts. Don’t give away discounts too regularly or too often. Especially if you’re offering a single service or just a few products (as we do), discounts could backfire on your overall sales.

New customers

However, even though there’s a risk to doing discounts, there’s also a benefit to them. Discounts can get you new customers. Giving people a discount might just be the thing to get them over the edge and become your customer. And new customers mean new opportunities of cross- and upsells, meaning more revenue in the long run as well.

Discounts for existing customers

Discounts are not only a way to acquire new customers, they’re also a way to show your gratitude to your existing customers. What better way to show that gratitude to your most valuable customers than to give them a discount. Giving discounts can come in the form of sending your best clients a free product, a discount code or whatever else you can think of.

These discounts or gestures don’t actually have to be that big to make someone appreciate the effort. In fact, the customer won’t only appreciate it, the customer’s behavior will actually change as well! It’s as they say: it’s the thought that counts.

Over to you

How often do you use discounts, and why? Do you feel they have a positive effect on your business or not? Let me know in the comments!

This post first appeared on Yoast. Whoopity Doo!

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