It’s a cultural trope to “want what you can’t have,” but it’s also a principle based in decades of psychological research. That principle, scarcity, is incredibly powerful in marketing, persuasion and conversion optimization (when done right).
The problem is, if you don’t do it right, it’s pretty meaningless (or worse, you trigger a psychological backfiring and hurt sales).
What Is Scarcity?
Scarcity is the phenomenon where, when a product or service is limited in availability (or perceived as being limited), it becomes more attractive.
This makes sense in a traditional economic way, where less supply and more demand drives up prices. It also makes sense on an intuitive level. When mom said you couldn’t have a toy, didn’t you want it more?
So it’s a psychological trigger, and it’s easy to understand from an intuitive level. What are the actual mechanisms behind this tactic, though?
Why Scarcity Works (FOMO, Playing Hard to Get, and more)
One of the most well-known scarcity studies was conducted by Stephen Worchel in 1975. He and his colleagues offered subjects cookies in a jar. One jar had ten cookies in and the other jar had two cookies. Subjects preferred the cookies from the jar with two in it, even though the cookies in both jars were identical.
Since then, much research has supported the efficacy of scarcity in the marketing world as well.
As a 2015 research paper said, “When something is rare, it’s alluring–true whether you’re talking about precious gemstones or a pristine edition of the first issue of Action Comics (which introduced Superman). And psychologists have long known that if you can make a consumer good more desirable by making it appear rare.”
Why is this? Much of it comes from the fear of missing out (FOMO).
FOMO is defined as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent. It is characterized by the “desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”
As you’ll see from the examples below, scarcity is heavily predicated on the idea that others desire the product/service, and that in order to get in on the goods, you’ve gotta act now.
It’s not always a simple function of FOMO, however. We seem to have a fear of asymmetrical control as well – it’s why you want what you can have.
For example, there was a study where women were shown a photograph of their potential dream man. Half of the women were told the guy was single and the other half were told he was in a relationship.
The results: 59% said they would be interested in pursuing the single guy, but that number jumped to 90% when they thought the guy was taken.
If something is rare, or unattainable, we want it more.
Even Aristotle noted the pleasure of rarity, remarking “that is why what comes to us only at long intervals is pleasant, whether it be a person or a thing; for it is a change from what we had before, and, besides, what comes only at long intervals has the value of rarity.”
“If something is not scarce, then it is not desired or valued that much. Praises from a teacher who seldom praises are valued more than praises from a teacher who is liberal with his or her praise.
Scarcity is non-linear process. As something becomes more scarce or less scarce, the desire for it does not change in a proportionate way.
If everything is scarce, then scarcity itself lacks its value and people become too used to it. Studies of retail sales have shown that if more than about 30% of goods have ‘sale’ sticker on them, the effectiveness of this method decreases.”
Human behavior is such that we are likelier to purchase something if we’re informed that it’s the very last one or that a special deal will soon expire. Point is, if people really believe that they’ll be missing out on something, they’ll be prompted to act more quickly to receive it.
When Scarcity Works (and When It Doesn’t)
Scarcity doesn’t always work, though. It’s not a silver bullet.
For instance, researchers showed through four studies that scarcity has a stronger positive effect on product evaluation when salience of persuasion knowledge is low, frequency of exposure to scarcity claims is low, decision reversibility is high, and cognitive load is high.
Basically, if people have a higher knowledge of persuasion or more exposure to scarcity claims, they’re less likely to value a scarce product more.
This study found that “when consumers interpreted scarcity claims as a sales tactic, the positive effect of scarcity claims on product evaluation would be diluted.”
To sum up, if the scarcity is BS and your customers are smart, it’s gonna hurt more than help.
18 Scarcity Examples That Work
There are generally two types of scarcity you can use to increase sales:
- Quantity-related scarcity (2 seats left at this price)
- Time-related scarcity (last day to buy)
We scoured the internet and found 18 good examples of scarcity. Surely you can find inspiration for your own execution. For fun (and as a cautionary tale) we also found some bad/cringe-worthy examples of scarcity.
Booking.com does many things well, one of them being scarcity. Take a look at a search result for hotels in Dublin…
Now, there are a couple scarcity triggers at play here:
- “Lock in this great price while you still can” – implies this deal won’t be around for long.
- “Booked 26 times today” – tells you this hotel is desirable.
- “5 people are looking right now” – tells you there may be some competition for the offer.
- “You missed it!” – Oh damn, this one is already gone. I better beat out the others for the next offer I see.
- “In high demand – only 4 rooms left on our site!” – This is the most explicit scarcity example I think I could give you.
There’s a real limit to hotel rooms as there’s a certain quantity available. Thumbs up to booking.com for displaying this information accurately, clearly, and persuasively.
You have, of course, shopped on Amazon. And I’m sure you’ve noticed the warning of “only _ left in stock”
This, in combination with the urgency play for shipping (“want it tomorrow?”), is an effective way of getting me to take action and avoid the loss of that rare book I had my eye on.
3. Chubbies Shorts
I’m a Chubbies fanboy. Their marketing is beautiful. From their copy, to their branding, to their social presence, they kill it. And they make wonderful use of limited time product.
Here’s an example of a promotion they run each year called Fourth of Julyber…
Basically, they release a “free gift” every hour with a purchase. This free gift is limited time, only available that day, at that specific hour. So, if you want an American Flag speedo, better act quickly.
4. Chubbies Pt. 2
Chubbies also does an excellent time-based scarcity play here…
When I think Chubbies, I often think 4th of July. And they release a special item for pre-sale with the guarantee that it will arrive right before the 4th. You know that, by taking action now, you won’t miss out on the attention of wearing these magnificent 5” inseam shorts.
5. Think Geek
Another example of topical scarcity is something I found on Think Geek…
It’s hard to read, but the banner says, “There’s still time for Mother’s Day delivery w/ expedited shipping” (for all of you last-minute shoppers).
6. Ralph Lauren
7. Badgers Sweet Sixteen
I’m a big fan of the Badgers. Sports in general. And in sports, there are so many events that happen only once. Superbowls, championships, etc. So with every opportunity for a “limited time offer,” you see some great scarcity at play. My favorite example? Obviously, it’s ‘sad Billy Murray’ from when Wisconsin beat Xavier to make it to the Sweet Sixteen…
Bumble is a dating app that has always had a level of scarcity baked in. They originally had a countdown timer of 1 day, where women had that amount of time to start a conversation with their match (women open first on this app), or the match disappears.
And they just added another element of scarcity to even the playing field. Now guys have 24 hours to respond. Game on.
9. Amazon Prime Now
My co-worker Ben and I were checking out Amazon Prime Now to see what cool stuff we could ship to our office (wine, perhaps), when we found another great example of scarcity…
See it? The weekly ad is “up to 50% off until 4/30.” Excellent time-based scarcity example.
Bonobos employs scarcity when it tells you which sizes and styles are out of stock right up front. Though honestly, I feel like this should be a bare necessity of an eCommerce site, it is, nonetheless, effective in showing you that the product is in high demand and low supply…
11. Modcloth (pt 1)
Modcloth is another site that is very well optimized in terms of persuasive triggers. On their product category pages, they list items that are low in stock. Check out the first two items and the red text underneath…
12. Modcloth (pt 2)
They also alert you when a certain item is back in stock. Because, presumably, it flew off the shelf previously because it was so popular…
13. Modcloth (pt 3)
And, of course, they show you when a product is fully out-of-stock at the moment as well. Wouldn’t want that to happen to a product you were looking at, so better buy now…
Marketizator does a great job, on their landing pages, of communicating time limits. This example, from a webinar we did with them, had a clear deadline (as it was a live event). This is a great example of using a countdown timer effectively…
15. ConversionXL Live
When we are selling conference tickets, we let people know how many tickets are left on each newsletter. Sure enough, ticket sales tend to accelerate as the numbers drop (though who know? Maybe that’s just because the event is closer)…
16. Frank & Oak
Frank & Oak creates the perception of rare items by highlighting unique products for just one week in their Week’s Highlights…
17. Jack Threads (pt 1)
Jack Threads employs a similar tactic as ModCloth. This is in their “New Arrivals” section and lets you know that the 2nd pair of Ray-Bans is “back in stock”
This presumes it was sold out because of massive popularity before. It implies if you want the pair you should jump on it before it happens again.
18. Jack Threads (pt 2)
Jack Threads also greeted me with this smooth pop-up…
If I sign up now, I get a 20% discount. Though, I’m fairly sure I could find a 20% off code somewhere else, so I actually don’t think this is a super strong scarcity ploy.
Scarcity Principle Gone Wrong: What Not To Do
Scarcity works well…unless it’s fake.
Peep posted this example a while back on the blog. Dude was trying to say his digital product had a limited number of monthly spots but had yearly memberships available. Yep, and, of course, he was planning on shutting it down in a few days…
As Peep noted:
Also, your product needs to have value. Everything else needs to be in place. Scarcity should not be the only method of persuasion applied. You also need to take care of clarity, distraction, anxieties, as well. As Jeremy Smith put it:
Scarcity is a powerful principle, but like everything, it is dependent on execution. Don’t employ fake scarcity. If you have a product in high demand and low supply, display it. It’s really more about clearly communicating the realities of scarcities than trying to manufacture it.
Hope you got some inspiration with this post. Let me know if you have some good examples of scarcity in the comments.