Only One Left: Using the Scarcity Principle in Marketing


The scarcity principle tells us that the perceived value of an object increases as its availability decreases.

A famous and oft-cited example is a 1975 study by Worchel, Lee, and Adewole. The researchers surveyed 200 female undergraduates on the value and attractiveness of cookies in two separate jars: one jar held ten cookies, and the other held two. The subjects placed higher value on the cookies in the latter jar. When the number of cookies in the first jar dwindled, the value of the remaining cookies rose; and rose more when the subjects were told that the cookies were lost to high demand (rather than an accident).

A pillar of economic theory, the scarcity principle also drives marketing tactics. Below, we show you how brands have taken advantage of the scarcity principle to drive sales.

Limited Quantity

Lucky Brand

Lucky Brand flags items that are going out of stock with 1 LEFT! to get the blood pumping in buyers. All unavailable sizes are struck through, highlighting the fact that nabbing the last one will be a major win in the competitive sport of shopping.

You’ll see this tactic used by fashion retailers, hotel booking agencies, ticket vendors, and a variety of other e-commerce sites.


Everlane places customers on a waitlist for unavailable items, like the Ryan Long Sleeve in navy blue. This heightens a buyer’s awareness of demand surrounding a product, making them elbow to be first in line. This commitment, in turn, makes a sale more likely when the shirt again becomes available.

Timed Checkout

Bib+TuckOn some sites, as in Bib+Tuck, the clock starts ticking as soon as you place an item in the cart. This helps create a sense of urgency in the buyer and escorts them through the checkout process, reducing cart abandonment.

You’ve probably seen different incarnations of this, such as a timer that counts down on each page.

Flash Sale

Royal Carribbean

Royal Caribbean’s two-day sales offer last minute cruises at steep discounts. Imposing a time limitation on deals puts the pressure on buyers to act quickly, making this a great way to fill empty cabins before departure.

Just as music festivals offer tiered ticket sales and retailers have short-term holiday specials, you have the power to drive sales with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it promotions.

Limited Editions


Responding to fan requests for smaller serving sizes, Starbucks is debuting its Mini Frappucino from May 11 through July 6. The menu addition angles for loyal customers who have a collector’s tendency, and for lukewarm customers who wouldn’t ordinarily order a Frappucino.

Because limited editions are scarce in quantity, and small in their window of availability, customers have more reason to purchase.


Lilly Pulitzer for Target

When Target released its highly anticipated collaboration with Lilly Pulitzer in stores, some people called it a “bloodbath.” Women lined up before dawn in hopes of snagging a discount designer jumpsuit or bikini, but when the gates opened, stock sold out within hours, and the website crashed.

Though an extreme example, this illustrates how brand collaborations play up the scarcity principle. Other coveted mash-ups have included Alexander Wang x H&M and Bethany Mota for Aeropostale.

Want to hear more? Head to 4 Strategies From Psychology That Can Be Used In Marketing!