Scarcity marketing gets a bad rep in ecommerce. It can come off as a fake or unauthentic sales tactic. But the scarcity principle continues to hold true: humans place a higher value on items they believe are scarce, and a lower value on ones that are in abundance.
For example, Yeezy shoes are more valuable than Nike shoes because they aren’t available 24/7. Instead, the brand launches new products with limited release drops. It’s estimated that for many of these collections, only tens of thousands of shoes are available for sale.
And they sell out almost immediately.
Done well, scarcity marketing tactics can make your brand more desirable and increase sales. This guide shares a handful of scarcity marketing campaigns you can use in your ecommerce site, with tips and tricks from online retailers doing it right.
What is scarcity marketing?
Scarcity marketing is when you capitalize on customers’ fear of missing out. There's a psychological principle behind it: people want what they can't have. Brands using product scarcity tactics will limit the supply or time frame people can buy a product, in order to increase perceived value and sales.
Scarcity marketing examples
- Flash sales
- Countdown timers
- Limited-time offers
- Limited stock
- Limited quantities and product drops
- Social proof
- Urgency in copy
- Cart reservation
1. Flash sales
Flash sales are sales that are announced last-minute and are available for a short amount of time. They get customers excited and ready to buy now, and can be a great way to create urgency.
If your business becomes known for its flash sales, your customers will be paying a lot more attention to your company’s marketing content and announcements.
Flash sales are beneficial because:
- You can promote a flash sale through various channels: SMS, email marketing, social media, ads
- They offer are good opportunity to reward existing customers by letting them know first
- They can provide a surge in sales if you need cash flow
If you’re signed up for Bose’s email list, you would have gotten access to its QuietComfort 45 flash sale. In this email, the brand offers a one-day flash sale that gives subscribers $50 off the brand’s QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones, which retail for $329.
The captivating offer is easily scannable by readers, whether they are on mobile or desktop, followed by a seductive product description and bold Shop Now CTA. The brand also uses scarcity and urgency in its subject line, which says, “1-day sale! $50 off our best selling QC45.”
It doesn’t matter what you call them: flash sales, hype sales, launch day sales, holiday sales and limited inventory sales are all high volume, high velocity events with the potential to bring in big revenue.
2. Countdown timers
Add a countdown timer to your product page instead of just showing the end date of the sale. An end date is less impactful than a visual timer. The customer is literally watching the clock tick down.
The use of countdown timers creates a sense of urgency and persuades customers to take immediate action. Countdown timers are something you’ve probably seen before in ecommerce stores.
There are a few places you can use countdown timers, one being right above the Add to Cart button on your product page. See how medical supply retailer Medici Supply Co. uses a countdown timer to promote its storewide sale.
The red text and strategic placement ensures shoppers don’t miss the message. With seconds ticking, it reminds them that the discount period is coming to a close.
Not every countdown timer needs to stand out using the color red. Women’s clothing brand ModCloth uses a soft green countdown bar to promote its limited-time sale. The bar stays at the top of the product page, informing shoppers about the 40% sale on select items.
3. Limited-time offers
A limited-time offer is a promotion deal set within a specific time period. It provides a clear end date for when the promotion becomes unavailable. Limited-time offers heavily rely on the scarcity principle: When a product is more difficult to get, it becomes more valuable to buyers.
Limited-time offers can take shape as:
- Discounted prices
- Free gifts
- Exclusive products
- Free shipping
The most common limited-time offer examples take place on Black Friday Cyber Monday (BFCM). It’s a one-day event where brands sell everything for extremely cheap, capitalizing on the holiday shopping sprint.
Brands also run limited-time offers throughout the year, for various reasons. Kyle Cosmetics, for example, recently ran a summer sale combining a discount and free gift. If shoppers spent over $40, they would get 25% off, plus a free jelly pouch.
Kylie Cosmetics also included specific details about the promotion on its homepage. Underneath the main sales copy, you’ll see when the offer ends, down to the hour (July 4 at 11:59 p.m. PST).
Keep the sale period reasonable when creating a limited-time offer. One hour is not a good length of time to offer deals. People may rebel against the deal if the window is too small. University of East Anglia researchers found that offers with time limits were accepted more often when participants had more time to consider them.
4. Limited stock
Another scarcity marketing tactic is showing the amount of items left in stock. The easiest way of doing this is to simply show the quantity of products in stock on the product page itself and bring attention to the quantity you have left.
You’ve probably seen this tactic before on an Amazon product page. On the right-hand column, under the price, Amazon will let you know how many items are left in stock.
If you’re running your own online store, you may want to use a less in-your-face urgency tactic. Yoga wear and accessory brand Alo Yoga uses a subtle but effective stock quantity display. Rather than say “There are X items left in stock,” Alo Yoga places a small “Almost Gone!” message underneath the colorways that are limited.
You can add a customized low-in-stock label in one click with an app like Scarcity: Low Stock Countdown. You choose the number of items in stock that triggers the alert.
Whenever inventory hits that amount or less, a label with your own text will appear on your product page. Showing your stock quantity is a great way to encourage customers to buy before the product goes out of stock.
5. Limited quantities and product drops
Another way to create scarcity with limited quantities is to tell customers how many you have to sell instead of telling them what’s left. In most cases, using this strategy works best when selling a limited edition or limited number of a product, where you only manufacture and sell a specific quantity.
Product drops, when a company releases limited edition products for a short period of time, have become common for sneaker and fashion brands. Adidas, for example, uses a drop model to drive buzz for Adidas’ Yeezy sneakers, regularly causing site crashes from the amount of customers trying to pick up a pair.
During its first drop, Kim Kardashian's Fendi X SKIMS collaboration made over $1 million in one minute. Many of the collection’s most expensive pieces, such as Kim’s leather mid-dress, sold out within seconds. TMZ reports that Fendi’s launch will be SKIMS’ most successful launch to date.
Drops aren’t just for global brands and big influencers. Donni, a clothing brand known for its elevated basics, also found success in launching product drops throughout the pandemic. Its founder, Alyssa Wasko, began dropping one style at a time with no notice, with the goal of surprising customers during a tough time and making their day. She tells Glossy that the customers’ reaction was “insane” and the brand would “sell out in minutes.”
If you want to launch a successful product drop for your store, read How to Create Hype with Product Drops on the Shopify Plus blog.
What resonates and [works] to build a community in the millennial space are [styles] with scarcity, exclusivity, and storytelling. And those three [characteristics] actually live inside of one pair of Levi’s.
6. Social proof
Social proof is a psychological theory referring to how we rely on the opinions and actions of others to make our own. It validates a shopper’s choice and says that a product is worth their time. In fact, 40% of shoppers say they trust reviews as much as personal recommendations from family and friends.
Social proof also shows online shoppers that you are credible and popular, which can trigger feelings of missing out and drive conversions. ModCloth, for example, places star ratings on its product pages to build trust and increase conversions. Shoppers can also read online reviews to learn from people’s experiences with the product and see whether it meets their expectations or not.
Social proof, plus other scarcity and urgency tactics like stock quantity and countdown timers, can result in more revenue than a plain-old product page. Use an app like Judge.me to collect reviews from customers (with photos and videos) and show them on your site.
7. Urgency in copy
You don’t only have to show the quantity or sell a limited amount of a product to create scarcity. The copywriting you use on your website, marketing materials and emails can create a lot of urgency as well.
Take a look at this email from Mizzen+Main.
Take note of the way Mizzen+Main describes its new shirts. Instead of simply saying, “Hey, new shirts are on our store, check them out,” Mizzen+Main makes me want to head over to its store immediately by letting me know that “They’re going quick!”
8. Cart reservation
Shopping cart abandonment is an $18 billion problem for online retailers. Another scarcity marketing technique is reserving shopping carts for people who leave them behind. In this process, articles are stored in the shopping cart for a period of time, so that other customers cannot purchase them. Afterward, you inform the shopper of what remains.
If you have the shopper's phone number, you can send a quick follow-up text with a link to the abandoned cart. Notice how SuperCoffee sends a slightly sassy, funny text letting the receiver know their cart is about to expire.
When the receiver is ready to complete their purchase, they can click the link and proceed to the shopping cart. Their previously added items will be available for purchase.
In addition, you can follow up via the shopper’s email address if you have it. Luno, a car camping brand, sends a short and sweet message in the example below. The email says that Luno has saved the cart for 24 hours, with an image and a call to action that directs the shopper to their shopping cart to purchase.
How scarcity marketing works
The fear of missing out can have a powerful effect on shoppers. There is potential for visitors on your website to procrastinate and try to delay their decision to buy. According to a study done by Centre De Recherche DMSP, consumers that were seen as high procrastinators had a 73% chance to not make a purchase decision immediately.
Consumers who were determined to be low procrastinators still had a 26% chance. By introducing a product or time shortage, your customers will be less likely to delay their buying decision.
While your objective isn’t to turn your website visitors into rabid shoppers, you do want to encourage people to act quickly, and that’s where scarcity comes in. You can introduce perceived scarcity to your store by creating a product or time shortage.
Use the scarcity principle responsibly
Finally, it’s worth noting that with great power comes great responsibility. With the right product and customer, scarcity can work really well. However, creating false scarcity or trying to trick people is not the best way to go about this practice.
Obvious manufactured scarcity marketing can turn off customers and hurt your brand.
Keep the following ideas in mind:
- The scarcity you create needs to be based in something. Why are you only selling those shirts for a limited time? Why is this a limited-run product? You can’t just throw a countdown timer onto a product page and expect it to sell more. The countdown timer should show an expiring sale or an offer (such as next-day shipping).
- Scarcity is not always a remedy for poor sales. There needs to be some demand for your products in the first place for this all to be really useful. Much like when Apple launches a new phone or tablet, the demand for its products is already there. The limited amount of Apple products at launch simply intensifies the demand and desirability.
- Don’t overdo it. You don’t want to come across as if you’re pressuring your customers. The primary function of perceived scarcity in your business is to encourage procrastinators to make a decision, not to force people to buy things they don’t want. A consequence of creating scarcity, when used improperly, is that it can create buyer’s remorse.
If customers make a purchase they were pressured into, it can cause them to regret their purchase, want a refund, and feel differently about your business.
Include scarcity tactics in your digital marketing strategy to boost sales
If you’re looking for a quick way to boost sales, using scarcity and urgency are great strategies beyond offering discounts. They excite customers and give them the mindset they need to buy now, before they lose out on the opportunity.
If scarcity makes sense for your store, consider applying one example to your business. Even a small change, such as how you describe the quantity left for a product, can have a big change on conversion rates.