Have you ever found yourself casually browsing for a holiday only to be bombarded with ‘helpful’ comments claiming to give an insight into the popularity and availability of your chosen hotel or flights? Statements such as ‘Hurry! 2 rooms left’ and then ‘ LAST CHANCE, 1 room left’ are commonly blanketed in red across any user’s screen.
The aim of these comments is to create a sense of urgency by making these holidays seem scarce and of limited availability. This has shown to greatly affect behaviour as people appear to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by gaining something which is of equal value (Cialdini, 2007). These seemingly insightful comments are actually a marketing technique using the commodity theory and the scarcity principle.
Cialdini (2007) states that there are two main components of the scarcity principle. The first being our love for finding shortcuts. Items which are difficult to obtain tend to be a better quality than those which are easy to get hold of so we tend to use the availability of an item as an indication of the quality of the product. The second component is loss of freedom, we hate to lose our freedoms which can happen when an item is no longer available as we no longer have the option to choose it. The fear of losing this free choice makes us desire the limited good more so than we would have otherwise. Therefore, these labels attached to the various booking options may increase an individual’s desire to book this hotel over another without fully considering the pros and cons of each or shopping around in an effort to avoid losing out.
The commodity theory is very similar to the scarcity principle and can be demonstrated by Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975) using everyone’s favourite baked goods, cookies. Their research involved participants rating how attractive and highly valued they found a jar of cookies. These cookies were made either scarcely or abundantly available to the participant. In the scarcely available condition, participants were seated by an experimenter at a table that had a jar containing 10 cookies in it. A second experimenter then entered holding a jar containing 2 cookies and swapped this with the jar that was in front of the participant, leaving them with a restricted amount of cookies. The participant was told the change in quantity was due to either a demand from other participants or an accident. In the abundant condition, the jar placed on the table contained 2 cookies, which was replaced by the second jar, containing 10 cookies. Participants were then asked to rate on a 9 point scale how much they liked the product, how attractive they found it and what they thought the cookie should be priced. The results of this study (shown in Table 1) demonstrated that cookies which were scarcely available were rated as being more valuable than cookies which were constantly abundant. This supports the commodity theory as participants desired the product most when it was limited. The cookies were rated as being even more attractive once their availability changed from abundant to scarce.
This can be applied to our hotel booking example. If someone is looking at a hotel and is undecided about booking, the addition of a comment such as ‘Only 1 room left’ would increase the perceived scarcity of the holiday and consequently their impulse to book now at the risk of missing out. Furthermore, if the individual was observing the hotel prior to the warning, then the addition of the comment could change the perception of the holiday from abundant to scarce, increasing its desirability, as shown in Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975).
The information on these websites could be true, there may only be one room left at the expo Hotel Barcelona but stating this information in unmissable bright colours, is undoubtedly a way to ensure an unsure customer picks that hotel now instead of its rival later.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Collins.
Worchel, S., Lee, J., & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of Supply and Demand on Ratings of Object Value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,32 (5), 906-914.