How to Guard Yourself From Flash Sales

Avoid overspending with these tips for your inner shopaholic.

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Rue La La. Zulily. Gilt Groupe. These sites have garnered millions of hits using "flash sales," which involves combing through thousands of deal offers and sending out the best ones in a daily email to registrants. In fact, flash-sale sites received 46.4 million total U.S. visits in March 2012, an increase of 31 percent over March 2011, according to Experian Hitwise, a surveyor of online consumer behavior.

Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says flash-sale sites are designed to tap into the most vulnerable aspects of our shopping psychology—and they can be quite devastating for people who can't resist them.

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These sites feed on a person's desire to find a "good deal," rendering shoppers overly focused on the hunt for bargains and under-focused on their need for the product. After exposing them to products they didn't know they wanted, shoppers are then forced into a hasty purchase decision through shotgun starts and immediate purchase requirements. "Most of these sites give you about 10 minutes to make a decision. In that state of excitement, people tend to not think as clearly," Yarrow says. "It clouds their decision-making process, and putting a time limit on that makes it a lot easier to make a mistake."

Those kinds of bad purchases are also a result of the strong psychological pull these websites have on consumers. "For some of them, it's an adventure. For others, it's a stress-reducer," Yarrow says. Learning how to resist that rewards-fulfilling behavior proves troublesome for many people.

April Lane Benson, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, says people are drawn to the sites because they like the idea of a sale, and one that's particularly convenient since it's just a click away. Benson says they also like the exclusivity, given that a number of flash sales sites are for members only. "It's a fast, secret thrill," she says. Anonymity also lures shoppers in, because an online purchase eliminates any guilt felt during an in-store shopping spree.

"With these websites, even their names have this aspirational quality to them," says Elizabeth Cline, author of the forthcoming book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Cline says people see designer and high-end clothes as status items. "The idea that you can own something like that without paying the typical high-end prices for it is really alluring for people," she says.

[See How to Battle Shopping Addiction.]

When shopping for high-end merchandise on flash sales, people also fall victim to sales simply because they think they're getting a deal. "We don't have a really good gauge of what clothing is actually worth and what it should actually cost," Cline says. "If we did, we wouldn't be tempted to spend quite as much on these websites."

Benson says flash-sale websites are extremely addictive. "They prey on the fear that if you don't get it now, you're never going to be able to have it," she says. "For somebody who's vulnerable to overspending, I think they're tremendously addictive."

If you fall into that category, you'll need to take certain steps to protect yourself from racking up a ton of credit card debt on these sites. Here's how to stop yourself from overspending on flash sales:

Hit unsubscribe. It's a simple step, but it's arguably the first and most important one to take. Benson says by unsubscribing, you'll get rid of the temptation brought on by daily emails. Yarrow agrees: "A dieter who's presented with 'cookie or no cookie?' is not going to do as well as someone who doesn't keep cookies in the house. The same goes for flash sales."

Shop with purpose. Don't just get on the Internet and start browsing. "Shop for something specific," Benson advises. "And allocate a reasonable time for the process." Setting a timer will also help keep your shopping to a minimum. Cline adds, "You should always know what you need in your wardrobe, rather than just seeing what's on sale and buying whatever looks good."