Have you ever purchased something on an impulse, simply because of a blinking “Only 1 remaining” text next to the “Buy Now” button?
Or because that 50% off coupon expired in just a few hours?
Most of us have. And it’s not always because we deeply needed or wanted a specific item. This is the scarcity principle at play.
And if you’re not yet using this principle on your ecommerce store, you’re missing out on an important marketing strategy that could multiply your sales.
What is the scarcity principle?
The scarcity principle refers to the usage of scarcity – meaning that something is scarce or in short supply – to make it appear more valuable to consumers.
You may have already used this principle without knowing it.
For example, did you ever run a limited time sale? If so, you were hard at work with the scarcity principle!
Scarcity can be both real and simulated, and typically, only the ecommerce store owner will know the difference. For example, if you’re selling physical products on your store, there is a form of scarcity there, because you rely on the supply of products.
But it doesn’t mean supply is scarce.
You can choose to share with your potential buyers when only a limited quantity of something is left. But when ecommerce marketers display a limited quantity of a certain item, sometimes it’s just a marketing trick used to sell more.
Scarcity isn’t just limited to product supply. It’s often paired with the sense of urgency and can be time-based, too.
Here’s what I mean. There can be a limited amount of time left to take part in a sale, participate in a contest, purchase a limited-edition item, or snag a discontinued product.
In this case, it isn’t so much the number of items that causes scarcity, but the amount of time the consumer has to make up their mind about whether they want it or not.
Scarcity can also work with exclusive products or sales that are only available to certain people in your audience.
For example, if you have a members-only sale or a tier of products that are only accessible to people who are part of your loyalty club, scarcity exists because it cannot be accessed by everyone.
How scarcity influences consumers
Marketers don’t just use the scarcity principle for fun. It’s been proven to be quite effective at increasing ecommerce sales!
Science Daily spoke about this phenomenon in their article about consumer preferences: “Psychologists have long known that you can make a consumer good more desirable by making it appear rare […] When people perceive a bunch of items to be scarce, they choose relatively more of their favorite item”.
They specify that this effect is present whether or not the scarcity was real or simulated.
When items are scarce, they are perceived as more valuable, and thus more desirable.
It also makes consumers feel like they have access to something that other people want but can’t have, which makes them feel good about themselves.
Whether this scarcity stems from item supply or time supply, the principle remains the same.
So why do ecommerce stores set up a time limit on their sales and promotions? It’s not just because they can’t afford to sell items at such low prices all the time (because some of them could).
It’s because it makes the sale more valuable.
If the sale were to continue forever, consumers would have the choice to push their purchases to “later”, because the sale isn’t really special. And “later” may never happen.
When there is a clear deadline, time becomes scarce. Consumers see this as a limited-time opportunity (because it is), and they know that they have to jump on it quickly if they want to take part in the sale.
In this case, it’s not so much the value of the specific items that is increased in the consumers’ eyes, but rather the value of the sale itself.
If you have a year-round sale, the importance and value of this sale won’t be as high compared to a sale that lasts seven, five, or even three days.
Why do people go crazy on Black Friday? Because of how short it is! Plus, it only comes around once a year.
People hate missing out, and this is reflected in their purchasing decisions.
Effective scarcity marketing examples
Now that we’ve explored why the scarcity principle makes consumers tick, it’s time to see it in action! I’ve compiled some brilliant scarcity marketing examples used by ecommerce platforms big and small.
You probably won’t want to miss these. (See what I did there?)
1. Insert limited time countdowns and sales
Let’s start it off with an example you’ve probably used yourself – a limited time sale!
As mentioned before, there’s a reason most sales aren’t evergreen. It defeats the purpose of a sale.
The shorter the sale, the fewer impressions you might make, but the more effective those impressions will be.
However, you don’t have to simply stick a date on your site and let it do its job. Take inspiration from TigerDirect and use a countdown timer to amp up the hype!
Every day, TigerDirect runs a new sale on a different item. If you want the item of the day, you have to get it – today.
And the timer makes it feel more real. You can see the seconds going down, and it lets you know exactly when you’re out of time.
A countdown timer is better than a simple date because not all consumers are great with dates and timing. Yet everyone understands what “Ends in 10 Hours” means, and it takes no mental effort to do the math.
2. Play with shipping countdowns
Unless your ecommerce store always provides free shipping, you can play with a “free shipping” idea using scarcity.
Amazon is well-known for instilling a sense of urgency into its consumers by letting you know exactly how much time you have left if you want your item shipped to you the next day.
If you look at this text early in the day, it’s not so bad. But the later it is, the more urgent this will become.
Amazon isn’t the only one who plays with scarcity and urgency in shipping! Macy’s ran a sale for cheap shipping in Canada only up to March 1, 2020. So if you’re a Canadian who enjoys shopping at Macy’s, you’ll be urged to make a larger order now and stockpile on clothes for the year.
3. Create special seasonal offers
You don’t have to be a clothing brand to offer seasonal scarcity. No matter what type of ecommerce store you run, you can use scarcity marketing throughout the seasons to increase the perceived value of said seasonal items.
David’s Tea constantly releases seasonal collections, and many of them are only available during certain times of the year.
So if your favorite tea is a Holiday tea, for example, you’ll need to stock up during the holiday season, because you won’t be able to buy it in the middle of the summer.
Even restaurants can take advantage of seasonal offers! For example, I received this newsletter from my favorite restaurant that advertised their Valentine’s Day only menu:
I hadn’t been there in a while, and my partner and I love treating ourselves to this place, so guess what I did when I was reminded of this menu?
Yup – I made reservations.
4. Make your low stock obvious
Are you running out of something?
Might as well make the most of it.
There’s no real urgency in purchasing something if your sale goes on for a long time, but if your consumer is coveting a specific item and the stock is running out, they’ll need to make up their minds or forever hold their peace.
Nordstrom makes it obvious when you browse their site. You really can’t miss the fact that there are only 2 remaining dresses:
This tactic is popular in the hotel industry as well. Booking loves to remind users that only 1 or 2 rooms remain for a specific location.
In the above screenshot, there are two examples of hotels running out of available rooms for a selected time period (scarcity!). But I’ve highlighted the second one for a reason.
Not only does Booking make it obvious that this room is in demand, but it reduces the friction for me to book it since I can cancel it later without paying anything. If I like this room, I can jump on the occasion, literally risk-free. Nice job, Booking.
Bonus: Did you notice the “members-only” deal they’re taunting me with? This is another use of scarcity. Because only members get to access these deals, they are perceived as more valuable.
5. Launch-limited edition items
Limited-edition items are the cream of the crop when it comes to scarcity. Not only is there a limited supply, but they’ll NEVER come back.
This makes these items much more valuable. The cost of NOT buying? You’ll never have access to this specific item again.
Whistles uses this principle brilliantly below:
They don’t just add a “limited edition” sticker on these pieces and leave it at that. The copy on this page makes it obvious that these items are:
Made from luxurious fabrics
For consumers who like to stand out, this offer is enticing for two reasons:
If they like one of these pieces, they need to buy now or miss out on them forever
If they buy these pieces, they’ll be one of the only people in the world who can wear them
The only way to make these items more valuable would be to create handmade, unique pieces!
Obviously, this example of scarcity cannot be “faked”. If you were to offer “limited edition” items over and over again, your customers would probably realize you were lying to them and would lose trust in your brand.
6. Display how many people are interested
Here’s another scarcity marketing tactic that the hotel industry is great at implementing – social proof! This acts as a double-whammy by not only showing consumers that their item is scarce, but also that it is good enough for other people to be interested as well.
Remember Booking? They’re great at doing this, too:
You also have the option of using real-time pressure to show consumers how quickly their coveted item could disappear from their grasp. For example, if you hover over the highlighted text in the screenshot above, it displays when exactly the room was booked the last time:
Suddenly, the reality of losing this room becomes very real, because I can see that real people have booked this for my specific date only 13 hours ago.
And when you click on the listing, they keep reminding you of the scarcity:
But let’s see what this can look like for products. Kohl’s has a great example of real-time social proof:
The fact that 21 people are viewing this right now will let the consumer know that they risk the chance of missing out on this sale if they don’t hurry.
Notice that they also use limited-time sales scarcity. Blending scarcity types together can be really effective at driving the point home.
Implement scarcity the easy way (without a programmer)
Don’t have the bandwidth to completely rehaul the pages on your site, but still want to include the scarcity principle in your marketing efforts?
In this case, simple tools like popups, sliders, and countdown timers can do the trick and help you add that element of exclusivity without touching the script that runs your site.
For instance, using Getsitecontrol, you can create a popup like this one without a single line of code and drive the attention of your store visitors to the ongoing sale:
To add this popup to your website, click the See live preview button above and follow short instructions. Then just type your own copy and change the creative before publishing it.
With Getsitecontrol, you can display banners announcing your sale and retain abandoning visitors with exit-intent popups. But better yet, you can add an email capture field and pop your email list using these widgets, too.
Why does growing your list matter for scarcity marketing? All the scarcity tactics in the world won’t work if nobody knows about them.
When you grow your email list, you gain a direct line of communication with your loyal customers to let them know about your products’ scarcity.
With Getsitecontrol, growing your email list and developing a relationship with your customers is straightforward and easy. Try it out yourself for free!
Charlene Boutin is a B2B writer for hire specialized in creating compelling case studies, blog posts, and converting copy for digital entrepreneurs and SaaS businesses. When not writing, she can be found prototyping weird games in Unity or playing on her Nintendo Switch.Subscribe to our newsletter → Main illustration by Icons8