[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Scarcity strategies in marketing rely on product or service availability limitations and their impact on consumer decision making (especially in respect to purchase intentions), and brand perception. In a sense, scarcity is a heuristic cue that communicates social proof and takes advantage of the authority bias. It tells consumers that others desire the product/service. And it leads to assumptions that others must desire the product/service for a good reason (e.g. they have some sort of expertise or authority). Oftentimes scarcity is artificial, in that a company purposefully limits supply (e.g. releasing a limited edition item) in order to leverage the hype surrounding any competition for their goods. This is called supply scarcity (Gierl & Huettl, 2010). An example of this strategy comes from Stanley, a beverage container business whose tumblers went viral in 2023 on TikTok. On December 31st 2023, they released a limited collaboration with Target, which saw consumers wait in line and then storm the shelves to get their tumbler. The benefit of this strategy was more viral TikTok videos that demonstrated social proof (e.g. people desperately trying to get the product), and news media coverage which communicated this social proof to those unfamiliar with the brand (Chery & Maloy, 2024; Mendez II, 2024). This type of scarcity can also be unintentional, but still have a similar role in respect to consumer decision making. For example, Taylor Swift can only hold so many concerts per city, which in turn creates high demand and hype for her tickets, while at the same time creating a market for resellers who increase scarcity further for personal profit (Kaplan, 2023). Scarcity can also occur when a consumer is led to believe (or perceives) that there are a limited quantity of goods remaining for purchase, suggesting that others must have high demand for the good. This is called demand scarcity (Gierl & Huettl, 2010). An example of this can be seen in ecommerce, where online stores often label products as “almost sold out” with the stock set to a small number (even though the item is immediately restocked when the stock reaches zero).

Conspicuous and Non-Conspicuous Consumption

Gierl and Huettl (2010) provide a great example of how context can influence the effectiveness of different types of scarcity on purchasing and brand perceptions. They examine differences between conspicuous consumption and non-conspicuous consumption. Gierl and Huettl (2010) describe conspicuous consumption goods as serving a social purpose by acting as a status symbol, expressing uniqueness, and/or demonstrating conformity with in-groups. Examples of this include cars, clothing, jewelry, video game cosmetics, mobile phones, etc. On the other hand, Gierl and Huettl (2010) describe non-conspicuous consumption as goods that have little influence on the previously mentioned social purposes, such as groceries, personal care products, and home electronics used in private (like a personal computer). To understand how scarcity interacts with these categories, they ran a study that looked at consumer attitudes towards different scarcity messaging in ads for conspicuous and non-conspicuous consumption goods. They found that for every type of conspicuous consumption good they looked at, supply scarcity led to more positive attitudes towards the product. Conversely, for every type of non-conspicuous consumption good they looked at, demand scarcity led to more positive attitudes. Gierl and Huettl (2010) also ran a second study, focusing on specific branded stereo equipment, and manipulating whether it would be placed in a public room (classifying it as a conspicuous consumption good) or in a private room where others wouldn’t see it (classifying it as a non-conspicuous consumption good). Once again, they found similar results. They provide a number of suggestions as to why this occurs. Conspicuous consumption goods are social in nature, so a limited supply suggests that there will be limited ownership which can lead to inferences of value (e.g. “I have this, but you don’t”). At the same time, limited ownership allows an individual to stand out through uniqueness. This can be seen with limited high fashion drops, or with limited edition sports cars. Lastly, being an owner of a limited item can infer in-group status with others who also own (or value) that limited item. For example, when limited edition cars or motorcycles are released, those who preorder are often invited to the country of origin (e.g. Italy) to try out the vehicle on a track, and attend events with other owners. Similarly, Gierl and Huettl (2010) use the example of a someone who wants to be part of an art community purchasing limited prints to signal their membership in that space. Within these contexts, Gierl and Huettl (2010) suggest that supply scarcity provides an interpersonal effect, creating social cues that enhance the social benefits of conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, demand scarcity provides information on the quality of the product, but also suggests that by purchasing a product the consumer is similar to many others (which is counterproductive to the goals of conspicuous consumption goods). Thus, when creating marketing strategy, supply scarcity should be used for conspicuous consumption goods, but not for non-conspicuous consumption goods, and vice-versa for demand scarcity. Of course there is a bit more nuance to these studies than we covered here so we recommend reading all of Gierl and Huettl (2010) for a more technical explanation.

Resource Scarcity

There is another dimension of scarcity called resource scarcity that can be relevant to marketing in times of crises. Resource scarcity occurs when we have a desired reference point (which can be influenced through the use of anchors) in respect to ownership of a resource/good/service that is incongruent from our current ownership status. For example, when COVID-19 started, there was perceived scarcity in respect to toilet paper, which led to panic buying (David et al., 2021). This panic buying occurred because many people shifted their reference point for toilet paper ownership to a higher level when faced with uncertainty of future availability. As goods with high demand become more scarce, we shift our perception of their value, which allows for price-gouging. Cannon et al. (2018) suggests there are two ways that consumers overcome resource scarcity. The first, which they call the scarcity-reduction route, involves an investment of personal effort towards remedying the discrepancy between ownership of a good and a desired reference point of ownership. For example, if you expect that there will be limited toilet paper available in the future, you might seek to stock up by going to the store and buying 100 rolls. The second route, which Cannon et al. (2018) call the control-restoration route, involves remedying any psychological threat or discomfort resulting from the ownership discrepancy they are facing due to scarcity. In this situation consumers feel a lack of control and seek ways to regain feelings of control. For example, many people facing uncertainty during COVID-19 took up side hobbies like cooking to elicit feelings of control. Alternatively, Cannon et al. (2018) suggest that many people purchase other goods to compensate for their lack of the scarce good (compensatory consumption). Further, they suggest that one method of regaining control is through non-consumption behaviours that help define structure and organization in one’s life, which can lead to stereotyping. In respect to marketing, the psychology behind resource scarcity may be valuable in countries where certain resources are not as abundant as in the West. Similarly, it may provide valuable insights if future crises (e.g. biological or environmental) interrupt supply chains once again. For example, many products have related substitute goods that aren’t direct competitors but still need to be considered in pricing strategy and branding (for example PC games are a substitute to Console ownership). If those substitute goods become scarce (e.g. PlayStation 5s), this provides an opportunity for substitutes (e.g. PC gaming platforms) to leverage that scarcity, and provide an option to consumers that can help them regain control through the control-restoration pathway (e.g. make games that are similar to those being released on console more salient). Roux (2020) has written a great blog post that discusses some of the nuances of resource scarcity in respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, and some findings from various studies that we have not covered here.

Time Scarcity

There is another form of scarcity that we have yet to discuss called time scarcity. This often takes the form of limited-time promotions/sales. One popular format of this is the countdown timer, used on many ecommerce websites (e.g. “50% off” with a 3-hour countdown timer). Recent research has suggested that these online time scarcity promotions may have little to no effect. For example, Hmurovic et al. (2023) performed a meta analysis of existing studies and their own experiments, and found no benefit to using time scarcity strategies online, except in very specific situations such as when there was an external justification for the scarcity (e.g. a December holiday sale) coupled with a short period of time remaining. This is likely due to a general recognition that these pressure tactics are deceptive (e.g. the timer just resets when you refresh the page), as seen in qualitative responses to a study on countdown timers presented at the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Studies (See the video presentation for Tiemessen et al., 2023). Thus, we suggest avoiding the use of any form of online time scarcity strategies if they have the potential to be perceived as deceptive or unethical, as it may damage your brand and would likely have a minimal impact on sales. However, research suggests that offline time-scarcity strategies are effective (e.g. increase purchasing behaviour), and do not damage brand reputation (Aggarwal & Vaidyanathan, 2003; Hmurovic et al., 2023). These types of promotions include limited time sales communicated through flyers/newspapers, and coupons with expiry dates. It also seems plausible that time scarcity strategies might improve sales (without negative brand consequences) on mobile apps, such as food delivery apps or mobile rewards apps (e.g. “buy 10 coffees and get 1 free”). There is some evidence supporting this (e.g. Baek & Yoon, 2020; Vigna & Mainardes, 2019) but it is limited. Based on the current evidence, we believe that time scarcity strategies work in environments where consumers believe they are honest and well-reasoned. Most big-brand sales are not deceptive, in the sense that they expire on the day they are set to expire. However, if we know a store is running the same “closing down” sale every week for a year (a tactic many furniture stores use), we would likely ignore any urgency from time scarcity techniques, and have negative feelings in respect to the brand. Since many stores are built on the same ecommerce platforms which use recycled themes and plugins, most online shoppers are aware that time scarcity strategies online are deceptive, thus making legitimate ones ineffective. Apps on the other hand seem to have a relatively decent reputation in respect to holding honest timed discounts. Thus, we suggest time scarcity strategies are appropriate in offline and in-app contexts, but should be avoided in online contexts (like ecommerce stores).

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Time scarcity and supply scarcity (as well as sometimes demand scarcity) can interact with feelings of urgency to create a fear of missing out, often referred to online as FOMO. This is a popular term in investing communities (especially in cryptocurrency spaces) as well as in online mobile games that use a gacha (gambling) system for profit. A fear of missing out is somewhat self explanatory. If an individual perceives that an item they desire is limited, they fear that they will regret not acquiring it while still possible. Similarly in the investing and gaming worlds, individuals fear that if they don’t invest (e.g. in stocks or in a limited character) they will regret it in the future. Hodkinson (2019) interviewed a number of undergraduate students and found that they often experienced FOMO marketing strategies when dealing with sales staff (e.g. travel agents) and occasionally in advertisements that use a “missing out” appeal, such as for concerts or limited edition product releases. Hodkinson (2019) provides an in-depth analyses of response mechanisms and outcomes of FOMO strategies, which is worth reviewing prior to initiating any strategies of your own. Good and Hyman (2020) reviewed existing studies on FOMO and ran their own study to see how FOMO appeals influence purchasing decisions (specifically in respect to concert tickets). They found that expectations of happiness, expectations of expense regret, and a desire for self-enhancement influenced the likelihood of purchasing tickets. Self-enhancement was a social dimension that included expectations about how others would perceive them if they made the purchase (e.g. people liking them more if they went to the concert). Focusing on these three factors may thus make FOMO appeals more effective. One thing to keep in mind however is that FOMO can lead to unplanned impulse purchases, which in turn increases the chances of post-purchase regret (Saleh, 2012). Thus, if using FOMO marketing strategies, it would be wise to follow up with strategies that use social proof to reinforce the customer’s decision (e.g. mentioning how many others are loving their purchase), which in turn should help counteract cognitive dissonance or negative feelings about the purchase. Additionally, research has found that FOMO can lead to social media fatigue, where individuals get burnt out in respect to social media use as they fear they might miss important information (Bright & Logan, 2018). One might make an inference that if FOMO leads to fatigue in respect to social media use, repeated use of FOMO strategies may lead to brand fatigue. For example, many gacha games (which are social in nature) use FOMO strategies on a weekly basis when they release new limited units and items that often require users to gamble real money to acquire. The player base of these games tends to diminish over time, leading to additional mechanics and greater requirements to spend to stay competitive, until the game inevitably shuts down. It seems likely that this might partially reflect FOMO fatigue, similar to that seen in social media use. Thus, one might expect a similar pattern to emerge for products/brands with high levels of FOMO, such as popular trading card games and collectable figurines. However, we have been unable to find much research on this, other than a study on Genshin Impact (a popular gacha game) that examines technostress (Hämäläinen et al., 2023).


There are many different nuances when it comes to the interaction between scarcity, marketing strategy, and consumer decision making. Roux et al. (2023) discusses these nuances in respect to product, price, promotion, place, and people, citing many existing studies and suggesting future avenues for research. Hamilton et al. (2019) perform a review of existing studies and describe how both product scarcity and resource scarcity can play a role and influence behaviour at each stage of a consumer decision journey. They then provide practical suggestions for marketing strategy/tactics and public policy. Shi et al., (2020) review research on product scarcity specifically, and conclude that product scarcity strategies can improve perceptions of brand, product value, and price, as well as enhance the chances of marketing campaigns going viral. Similarly Barton et al. (2022) perform a meta-analysis of 131 studies that examine demand, supply, and time scarcity, as well as when they are most effective. They conclude that for experiences (like a concert or vacation) or for conspicuous consumption goods (e.g. designer fashion) supply scarcity has the greatest influence on purchasing decisions. Conversely, purchase intentions for utilitarian products (e.g. toilet paper) were found to be most influenced by demand scarcity. And time scarcity was found to be most effective for high involvement hedonic products (e.g. limited-edition cars). Barton et al. (2022) also discuss cultural nuances, and suggest that scarcity may be more effective in low context cultures where language and meaning are often taken literally. Prior to initiating any marketing strategies, we highly suggest reading through these reviews, as there is quite a bit of context-dependent nuance that we did not discuss here.

Applying Scarcity to Marketing

The first thing you should consider is whether or not there is a social aspect to the product/service you are selling. A social aspect can mean that the product communicates wealth or status (e.g. it’s a conspicuous consumption good), or that there are social pressures related to purchasing it (e.g. tickets to a concert). If there is a social aspect, you initially want to focus on the possibility of supply scarcity, where you create artificial limits and communicate benefits of ownership. These benefits can be status-related (e.g. “buy X and people will like you more”), or relationship/participation-related (e.g. “buy x so you can belong to group y and/or participate in activity z”). You then want to consider the appropriateness of using time scarcity in conjunction with supply scarcity. In respect to supply scarcity, time scarcity strategies should be justified and believable. For example, you might sell a luxury clothing drop for 24 hours only as a Valentines day promotion. Or you might require event tickets to be purchased x-weeks ahead of the event to ensure proper accommodations are set up. You can also consider leveraging a fear or missing out with your marketing strategy and copy choices, emphasizing that the item won’t be available in the future, or using influencers to hype up ownership,

If on the other hand your product/service is not social in nature (e.g. groceries, cosmetics, medical items, private-use electronics) you may want to first consider the possibility of demand scarcity strategies. For example, you might want to communicate that the item is selling out quickly. The goal here is to use scarcity as social proof or an informational source (e.g. via the authority bias) to convince others that the product/service is worth buying (since others are purchasing it quickly). Time scarcity strategies like sales work best offline or in apps. If using sales online, they need to be justified (e.g. matched to an event like Halloween) and believable. Countdown timers and limited time discounts on ecommerce stores are often seen as deceptive and should be avoided. Your ability to use sales effectively in online environments will greatly depend on brand loyalty and social media engagement. For example, if you have many repeat customers who know your sales are legitimate, they can be a useful way to drive profits during periods of low sales or periods of high competition (e.g. holidays). On the other hand, if most people purchasing your product/service are new to your brand, they may not believe that any sales you have listed are truly limited.

In times of crisis or in countries with resource limitations, you may want to consider the impact of resource scarcity. This is often a great opportunity to put forth a product/service as a substitute good to existing products/services that dominate the market. Further, resource scarcity may allow you to shift prices higher. Although it’s important to consider the ethical implications and the impact on your brand. If you raise prices during a crisis, it may anger your customers and consumers in general, who may see the actions as exploitative. Resource scarcity also provides you with an opportunity to enhance the value of your brand if combined with demand scarcity. Although this requires nuanced strategy to leverage informational norms and social proof associated with increased demand.

Practical Examples of Scarcity

Using Anchoring Bias to Create Artifical Resource Scarcity

If you are selling a product or service that is related to future products or services you can create artificial resource scarcity by setting future expectations as a reference point for present ownership. For example, imagine you sell collectible trading cards used in a trading card game. If you announce that a new expansion (new set of cards) is coming out in half a year and the current cards will be discontinued, players who were slowly building up their deck/collection may now perceive time scarcity pressures, and decide that they need to collect a certain number or set of cards prior to the new expansion. Thus, they experience resource scarcity as there is a difference between what they own and what they desire. This in turn can lead to hype, with collectors lining up to make sure they are able to complete their collection before the expansion. In this situation you don’t necessarily have to limit the supply. Rather, you just need to create a perception of possible scarcity (e.g. a fear of missing out in respect to existing cards selling out). The only danger here is that if the supply of cards does end up limited (e.g. if people can’t get the cards they desire) it might end up driving them away from your game, and thus hurt future profits. A similar situation to this is band merchandise prior to concerts. For example, if you know that an upcoming K-pop concert you are going to incorporates a $100 light stick into the performance, you may want to purchase that light stick prior to the event if you think it could sell out. Event organizers often use this resource scarcity to drive early sales of merchandise, which often are more profitable than the concert/event itself.

Influencers and Fear of Missing Out

Dinh & Lee (2022) examined the relationship between influencers and consumer purchase intentions towards products that influencers promote. They found that individuals compare themselves to influencers, and believe that by purchasing promoted products they will be more like the influencers (presumably happy and successful). This promotes materialistic purchasing patterns (e.g. for conspicuous consumption) and leads to a fear of missing out on trends. And this in turn pressures individuals to purchase promoted products, especially when those products are trending. These findings suggest that influencers can be one of the best sources for creating a fear of missing out. This is also in line with recent history, and most apparent in the cryptocurrency sphere where many influencers were involved in rug pulls (scams) over the past few years (see: Asarch, 2021; Glover, 2023; Hyatt, 2022) that took advantage of a fear of missing out on trendy cryptocurrency and profits. Thus, if you want to create a fear of missing out, finding influencers that invoke social comparisons (e.g. make people want to be like them), promote a specific culture or in-group identity (e.g. gamers, make up artists), or who are personally trending at the moment (e.g. celebrities who were recently in a popular movie or part of a popular brand) is a great first step. Engagement is also key, which can be assessed directly through examining the influencer’s social media and associated online communities (e.g. popular discord servers, or popular Twitter/X communities). Once you find influencers to promote your product/service you need to create supply scarcity, designed in a way to communicate and emphasize exclusivity. This could be a unique fashion item, special jewelry, a current trending product, a branded item (e.g. one that references the influencer/celebrity), etc. It can also help if you can make ownership of this product/service social (e.g. give people access to a special party if they buy it). Or if you can have some sort of contest that involves the influencer (like a chance to meet them). Further, if you can provide a way for customers to show off the product in videos (e.g. make using/showing the product a trend) it may help as well. By combining influencers with supply scarcity, you can create a fear of missing out which drives up hype, and in turn creates demand scarcity. This in turn acts as social proof that your brand is well liked and desired, providing both sales, marketing and brand benefits.

Demand Scarcity with Ecommerce Wishlists

If you have an ecommerce store, one way to drive sales is to make demand scarcity salient. The traditional way of doing this is showing how many items are left in stock, but most new customers will assume those values are deceptive and that you will just restock the item once they reach zero. If you truly do have limited items that do not always restock right away, you can email customers when items on their wishlist are running out, informing them of how many are left, and possibly mentioning potential restock times. For example, around Christmas you might send emails saying “We don’t know when we will be getting them back in, so don’t miss out.” These statements are believable as most people recognize that stores run out of stock at Christmas (hence many people shop early). Further, if items do run out and are not restocked, regular customers (the ones likely to have wishlists) will recognize the trend. Thus, you don’t need to convince them that an item may not be restocked. By sending out these emails, you are also telling customers that others are purchasing the products they wishlist, which is a form of social proof and also helps boost their self-esteem/self-concept (as it suggests they have good taste in clothing). Further, you’re creating a fear of missing out. Thus, customers who already desired the product are now more likely to feel positive about it (due to others purchasing it), and may not want to miss out on owning it forever, leading to increased purchasing intention.

Works Cited

Aggarwal, P., & Vaidyanathan, R. (2003). Use it or lose it: purchase acceleration effects of time-limited promotions. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 2(4), 393-403.

Asarch, S. (2021, July 2). FaZe Clan members suspended following allegations that their Save the Kids cryptocurrency may have been a scam. Business Insider.

Baek, T. H., & Yoon, S. (2020). Looking forward, looking back: The impact of goal progress and time urgency on consumer responses to mobile reward apps. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 54, 102046.

Barton, B., Zlatevska, N., & Oppewal, H. (2022). Scarcity tactics in marketing: A meta-analysis of product scarcity effects on consumer purchase intentions. Journal of Retailing, 98(4), 741-758.

Bright, L. F., & Logan, K. (2018). Is my fear of missing out (FOMO) causing fatigue? Advertising, social media fatigue, and the implications for consumers and brands. Internet Research, 28(5), 1213-1227.

Cannon, C., Goldsmith, K., & Roux, C. (2018). A self-regulatory model of resource scarcity. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 29(1), 104-127.

Chery, S., & Maloy, A. F. (2024, January 5). The thirst for Stanley tumblers has reached a tipping point. The Washington Post.

David, J., Visvalingam, S., & Norbert, M. M. (2021). Why did all the toilet paper disappear? Distinguishing between panic buying and hoarding during COVID-19. Psychiatry Research, 303, 114062.

Dinh, T. C. T., & Lee, Y. (2022). “I want to be as trendy as influencers” – how “fear of missing out” leads to buying intention for products endorsed by social media influencers. Journal of Research in Interactive Marketing, 16(3), 346-364.

Gierl, H., & Huettl, V. (2010). Are scarce products always more attractive? The interaction of different types of scarcity signals with products’ suitability for conspicuous consumption. International Journal of Research Marketing, 27(3), 225-235.

Glover, G. (2023, February 3). Logan Paul is being sued for promoting a failed crypto game that asked people to buy NFTs but never launched. Business Insider.

Good, M. C., & Hyman, M. R. (2020). Direct and indirect effects of fear-of-missing-out appeals on purchase likelihood. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 20(3), 564-576.

Hämäläinen, A., Koskelainen, T., & Teukku, S. (2023). Technostress in digital games : Case Genshin Impact. 14th Scandinavian Conference on Information Systems, 5.

Hamilton, R., Thompson, D., Bone, S., Chaplin, L. N., Griskevicius, V., Goldsmith, K., Hill, R., John, D. R., Mittal, C., O’Guinn, T., Piff, P., Roux, C., Shah, A., & Zhu, M. (2019). The effects of scarcity on consumer decision journeys. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 47(3), 532-550.

Hmurovic, J., Lamberton, C., & Goldsmith, K. (2023). Examining the efficacy of time scarcity marketing promotions in online retail. Journal of Marketing Research, 60(2), 299-328.

Hodkinson, C. (2019). ‘Fear of missing out’ (FOMO) marketing appeals: A conceptual model. Journal of Marketing Communications, 25(1), 65-88.

Hyatt, J. (2022, November 11). The untold story behind Emax, the cryptocurrency Kim Kardashian got busted for hyping. Forbes.

Kaplan, J. (2023, August 19). The Taylor Swift fan says she’s ‘embarrassed’ about paying $5,500 for resale tickets. Business Insider.

Mendez II, M. (2024, January 5). Why a new Stanley cup is causing a frenzy at Target. Time.

Roux, C. (2020, October 28). How resource scarcity and the COVID-19 pandemic impact consumer behavior. Concordia University Blog Post.

Roux, C., Goldsmith, K., & Cannon, C. (2023). On the role of scarcity in marketing: Identifying research opportunities across the 5Ps. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 51, 1197-1202.

Saleh, M. A. H. (2012). An investigation of the relationship between unplanned buying and post-purchase regret. International Journal of Marketing Studies, 4(4), 106-120.

Shi, X., Li, F., & Chumnumpan, P. (2020). The use of product scarcity in marketing. European Journal of Marketing, 54(2), 380-418.

Tiemessen, J., Schraffenberger, H., Acar, G. (2023). The time is ticking: The effect of limited time discounts on consumers’ buying behavior and experience. Extended Abstracts of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 277. NOTE: this is a work in progress and not peer reviewed. We suggest watching the video(s) in the Supplemental Material section for a quick overview, as we are only citing this for the qualitative data they mention (although it sounds like a great study).

Vigna, J. P., & Mainardes, E. W. (2019). Sales promotion and the purchasing behavior of food consumers. Revista Brasileira de Marketing, 18(3), 101-126.

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