A few weeks ago I was on EasyJet, looking at flights to go visit my friend in Switzerland. When I was shown the prices of flights on the classic grid layout my attention was automatically drawn to a flashing sentence saying how many people are currently viewing the same route and how many minutes ago the last ticket was booked. I caught myself thinking I better book tickets as soon as possible before the price goes up or the flight fills up since over 40 people (!!) are considering the very same route at the very same moment. I completely naïvely fell for the scarcity effect. Now, having experienced this ridiculously simple yet highly effective social influence technique (which I will shortly explain) I was on the lookout for similar traps. And it didn’t take long for me to spot another one – this time when purchasing train tickets to London.
The approach Trainline takes to influence customers into buying tickets isn’t exactly the same as EasyJet’s but it has scarcity effect written all over it. All it takes is two words “Limited availability” to tactfully pressure customers into purchasing a ticket right then and there.
The scarcity effect and is a form of social influence commonly employed by marketers to intensify the attractiveness and appeal of a product - products that appear to be under high demand and thus have a limited availability become more attractive to the consumer (Jung & Kellaris, 2004). The reason for this is due to the fact that objects and items of value tend to be scarce in nature – therefore, when shown to be scarce, an object is inferred as being of high value (Jung & Kellaris, 2004).
In a study done by Wann, Bayens and Driver (2004) participants read a scenario which described a basketball game taking place in an arena seating 20,000 people. The scenario continued to say that the participant’s acquaintance is willing to sell an extra ticket to the game at a relatively reasonable price. Participants were divided into two conditions – in one they read there are only 25 tickets remaining (scarce condition) and in the other they read there are 2,000 tickets still available (non-scarce condition). All participants then completed a Likelihood of Attendance scale which, quite self-explanatorily, assessed how likely they were to buy the extra ticket and ultimately attend the game on a scale from 1 (not likely, not excited, not important) to 8 (very likely, very excited, very important) (Wann, Bayens & Driver, 2004).
Results showed that participants in the scarce condition displayed a significantly stronger desire to attend the game (M = 5.09) than did participants in the non-scarce condition (M = 3.13). Furthermore, those in the scarce condition were significantly more willing to miss another event in order to attend the game than were those in the non-scarce condition. Finally, participants in the scarce condition were even willing to spend significantly more money on the ticket (M = $48.84) than participants in the non-scarce condition (M = $25.19) (Wann, Bayens & Driver, 2004). Given the lack of a two-way interaction, the scarcity effect was of equal power regardless how much the participants identified with the team (Wann, Bayens & Driver, 2004).
The evidence for the effectiveness of the scarcity effect is there, but why does it have such a strong influence over us consumers? Cialdini (1995) explains its effectiveness as stemming from the universal human need to avoid potential losses. So next time you're buying tickets or otherwise encountering forms of applied scarcity effect in marketing, know its merely a tool used in hopes of influencing our consumerism and increasing our purchasing motivation.
Cialdini, R. B. (1995). Principles and techniques of social influence. In A. Tesser (Ed.), Advanced Social Psychology (pp. 256-281). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jung, J. M., & Kellaris, J. J. (2004). Cross-national differences in proneness to scarcity effects: The moderating roles of familiarity, uncertainty avoidance, and need for cognitive closure. Psychology & Marketing, 21, 739-753.
Wann, D., Bayens, C., & Driver, A. (2004). Likelihood of attending a sporting event as a function of ticket scarcity and team identification. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 13, 209-215.