Countdown Timers: How to Avoid Pressure and Manipulation

A countdown timer ticking down.
Tick tock. (Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.)
"The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost."
- G.K. Chesterton

Supplies are limited! Order now!

When the timer runs out, we’re closing the doors forever!

A few years ago, I was in a world of financial hurt. I’d been unemployed for eight months, and I had bills to pay. Desperate since no job I wanted wanted me back, I turned to the Internet to become an entrepreneur.

Several sites beckoned me. None of them promised I’d “get rich quick,” since we consumers are onto that now. Instead, they promised tropical vacations and a “six-figure income,” which is the same thing in different clothes.

Imagine feeling hopeless and finding the opportunity to solve your money problems a few clicks away. I can sell cheap Chinese crud on Amazon! I can’t do any real job– the world told me so!

Hook, line, and sinker.

Toward the end of the recorded live presentation, this thing appeared onscreen.

A digital clock countdown timer. 7 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds to go.
(sample image by in8finity on Creative Market)

The presenter then told me that in thirty minutes he had to end the deal. It was $3500, five-full-hundred less than regular price. Wowee! They’d charge me $4000 later anyway, but hey, “seats” were limited. And besides, I’d make that back in no time.

It was the countdown timer that snagged me. After they vacuumed out my bank account, I became aware of every site that used one, the jerks.

And I’m here to tell you that…

Sometimes it’s legitimate.

Fire sales, last runs, and exclusive items are non-manipulative ways good companies use scarcity marketing. But it gets more complicated than that.

You need to protect yourself to keep from getting ripped off by a ruthless countdown timer.

Most businesses are ethical, so I’m advocating awareness here, not cynicism. Here are some ways to tell if the company you want to buy from’s timer is ethical. I’ll start with good reasons, then go to complicated and bad.

1. Supplies are limited

Wait, hold on, it’s not that simple. If the company doesn’t plan on buying more stock because the item is unpopular, damaged, or too expensive to produce at their current margins, go for it. Good business sense on their part.

Maybe they underestimated demand. That’s fine, too.

But try this: open a private window, then go to the same page you’re on in your normal window. Do the timers have the same cutoff, or are they different per customer? Some businesses prey on fear. Though it would, of course, be your choice to buy from an unethical company.

It can also be a flash sale. Those are fine unless the non-sale price is over 300% the sale price. (Looking at you, Udemy.) Then any deal looks like a great deal.

Also, they could offer free installation, etc. Fine.

But if they’re selling access or “seats,” like the scam I bought into, make sure they can’t support more than a set number. The trap I fell for could have had infinite seats, but they said they couldn’t to lure suckers into a scarcity mindset. Tick tock.

If you get 1-on-1 access to a teacher who you speak with for an hour every few days, for example, that person only has so much time. It’s legitimate.

2. They sell unique items

Some brands run a set amount of exclusive items that they don’t sell again, ever. With this one, you just have to check the company’s history. Do they sell those things again later and only say they’re exclusive? Or do they have a fanbase that gobbles them up the minute they come out?

If it’s the latter, their timer is legit.

3. They tell you

Rare, but I’ve seen it. Some businesses are so transparent they’ll tell you their margins are razor-thin and they can’t offer this deal for long. This works best with smaller physical products– it’s hard to price PDF’s.

Just be careful. Anyone can say it. No normal t-shirt is $40, for instance, slashed down from $100.

4. Too short of a timer window

Why orange? Because you often can’t tell if you entered the site when there are twenty minutes left and they started their timer days ago. Maybe it started when you entered the site. So again, try the private window trick.

If the deal is legit and there are twenty minutes left, all I can say is think about it. They’re ethical.

5. They extend the sale more than once.

Timers drive sales. It’s okay if they extend the timer due to surging demand, but more than once is sketchy. They could be doing this over and over to drive fear sales. I’m not sure if the scam I bought did this, but I know a few ebook sellers that do.

Only a novice business owner would choose this option. Word will get around, and after long, their company or site’s reputation will plummet.

I get emails from a company that, although legit, offers me 30% off in every email they send me, and they send emails every other day. To their credit, they change the words. It just doesn’t look good.

6. Third-party bonuses

Very orange.

Companies can offer bonuses, premiums, or perks from third parties, throw their hands up, and say “It’s not at my discretion whether they’ll stop offering them.” Those third parties have reasons of their own, maybe a type #1 reason, so you can’t tell. Bonuses are dope, but they shouldn’t persuade you into buying something you wouldn’t have otherwise.

(This is also known as the higher authority gambit.)

7. “Un”limited editions

Yes, it happens. No limited edition is a limited edition if they turn around and sell it later under the same pretense. That’s manipulation.

8. No incentive for a countdown timer

This is the one that got me. “Buy now before we close the doors to our master class” or whatever. Breathe, and think: is there any incentive for them to offer limited seats? If no, get out of there.

I know I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. Anyone who uses this will rip you off.

9. Post-purchase, one-time-only extras

Okay, they’re not using a countdown timer here, but it’s still time-based, scam-based, and me-based.

If you buy a $10 ebook and then get redirected to a page trying to upsell you an exclusive extra for $10 more, just pause and think. Heck, if you can stay on the page for several hours, do it. Get up, cool your head, and do something to take your mind off it.

Then go back to it much later and use logic to deduce whether you need it. Want it, maybe, but need is a different ballgame.

This only happened to me once, and they didn’t use a countdown timer, but if you see one on the upsell page(s), red alert. No ethical business will do this. And if those extras aren’t offered for sale anywhere else on their site, you can bet they’re not worth their price tag.

Fake money with the word "scam" written over it.
Scams need marketing, too. (Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.)

Am I gullible?

Are you?

Timers can make us both more so.

From the marketers’ point of view, unsure new customers need a nudge. But you don’t need a nudge to buy something you regret.

Before any countdown timer pressures you into an unethical, sleazy deal, evaluate it with the points above. Do you want to buy from a company that gleans extra sales through unscrupulous dealings?

And this is just my experience. I don’t know everything. I collected these from unveiled bad examples and my own regrets. There can be more types out there, so be careful.

In the meantime, if you know any other types, drop a comment below and help out other readers!

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