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Using Scarcity to Create Shopper Urgency

The psychological impact of scarcity upon shoppers is well-known. Whether it's the number of seats available on a flight or the latest gadget, the knowledge that there will be limited access to a product or service naturally increases our urgency to buy and buy now.

Robert Cialdini famously writes about scarcity in his 1984 classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion as one of the 6 'principles of influence'. He has this to say about scarcity:

As opportunities become less available, we lose freedom; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have. This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory, developed by psychologist Jack Brehm to explain the human response to diminishing personal control. According to the theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity – or anything else – interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.

- Robert Cialdini, The Psychology of Persuasion

Savvy retailers have been leveraging this phenomenon for decades, but are you? Here are a few simple ways you can create a feeling of scarcity in your online store and encourage shoppers to buy more, faster.

1. Units available (Stock Scarcity)

e-Commerce vendors will indicate a limited availability of a product or service to create this sense of urgency.  Amazon does this by indicating that they have limited stock available, and that a consumer should "order soon". Of course we all know that Amazon will almost certainly get more stock of that product but if we don’t buy now, who knows how long we might have to wait? In reality, you won't be waiting long, but this method is effective nonetheless. Airlines are also starting to employ this on their sales pages in order to increase urgency to buy a seat as inventory on a flight starts to reach capacity.  Take a look at this example from Delta, where I'm confronted with a sense of urgency to get the last seat available on this upcoming flight to Atlanta.


2. Size Scarcity

Striking and graying out sizes that are going out of stock accomplishes a couple of things:

  • Shows that the product is in-demand, thus increasing buyer interest
  • Creates urgency that their size might be soon out of stock, if not already, thus increasing the chance of a purchase on that visit.


3. Early adopter angst

Before Apple, this might have been a tactic solely attributed to Christmas shopping (think 'Tickle Me Elmo') Apple then mastered early adopter angst in the 90's and 00's is now used to its intended effect by many distributors of electronics and other consumer products.

e-Commerce sites now use tactics like 'Preview' and 'Pre-order today' to drive interest and increase order frequency. This can be incredibly powerful, but can only be done so often as products of this nature tend to be very cyclical, and if you try to take advantage of this type of scarcity too often you'll end up burning out your customer base.


4. Deadlines

This is also a pretty basic concept. Basically, if your customers know your "25% Off Back to School Sale" ends on Friday, they're going to feel the need to act before the sale ends. Marketers trigger this effect through tactics suggesting products (or low prices) might soon be gone, or someone is trying to keep this product off the market. Most retailers will report during these deadline deals, sales will increase by at least 50% in the 24 hours prior to the deadline. 


Creating a sense of urgency through scarcity is a powerful motivator for your customers, but it's also important to make sure that you communicate this scarcity effectively.  You can't rely on random visitors to your website knowing ahead of time that you are running a sale, or that you are running low on a particular product.  By creating calls to action reminding your customers of scarcity, you may invoke enough urgency around an unplanned purchase. 

While scarcity has long been employed as a tactic to boost sales by retailers, be wary of misusing these and other tactics as a pure money grab with your customer base. ‘Scarcity’ or ‘Urgency’ work best as motivators to quicken the buying process but the customer will have to be already convinced to make the purchase decision. Disingenuous messaging to offload inventory can have real and lasting damaging effects on your business. And as always, remember testing these tactics to smaller segments of your shopping base will inform you as to what might or might not work at scale. 


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