The situation is simple: You sell products on your e-commerce site and want people to buy them. Your job is figuring out how to get potential buyers to invest their money in what you’re selling.
For as long as merchants have sold goods and services, messages like “while supplies last” and “get ‘em while they’re hot” have been used. Contained in these messages are two key concepts — Scarcity and Urgency. By combining these concepts, you can create a sense of want and need in customers, turning browsers into buyers.
In this article, we examine these two terms, look at why they are important in e-commerce, show how they can boost conversions, and present some real-world examples.
The dictionary definition of scarcity is:
For British economist Lionel Robbins, scarcity defined the field of economics. Economically speaking, scarcity is, “the basic economic problem, the gap between limited — that is, scarce — resources and theoretically limitless wants.” If every resource was equally abundant, there would be nothing for economists to study. However, the world has limited resources leading to scarcity.
Urgency is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
For e-commerce, urgency is the need purchase now and not put it off until later. It is the desire to buy something ASAP.
With limited resources, the average person must make choices. If you only have $75 a week to feed your family, you make certain choices on grocery purchases. If you have $300 a week, you make different choices.
Your customers constantly make choices. When running an e-commerce site, your job is to encourage customers to choose your products over other products.
Anyone who spends time around kids knows that scarcity is a huge motivator. If there are two kids and one cookie, that cookie instantly transforms into the most desirable, delectable treat in the world. The idea of JUST ONE COOKIE invades their little brains and both kids MUST have the last cookie, NOW!
Neither wants to miss out on getting a cookie. In this example, scarcity produces urgency which creates an intense desire for a cookie that previously might not have existed.
Scarcity and urgency can also lead to FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out. FOMO is a major motivator in human behavior. Many people who obsess over social media for fear of being out of the loop. They constantly check for the most recent photos, memes, and cat videos.
When applied to e-commerce, scarcity is extremely effective at addressing FOMO. Limited time offers and limited quantities are two effective tools to create scarcity.
These imposed limitations address the customer’s fear of missing great deals and amazing products. As a result, FOMO:
translates into fear of loss, and then the fear-loss aversion instinct kicks in. Your prospects feel more inclined to act now, even without you pressuring them outright.
If customers already want what you’re selling, it’s easier to nudge them towards conversion. This is where “while supplies last” is most helpful.
Urgency and scarcity messages may not create new customers or even create a demand for what you’re selling. Yet these messages are effective at moving customers along the conversion pipeline. Scarcity and urgency have been called ‘procrastination killers’. As one source states:
“Scarcity” or “Urgency” work best as motivators to quicken the buying process, but the customer will have to be already convinced to make the purchase decision…don’t expect them to generate demand.
Setting deadlines for customers to decide on purchases is an effective way to create urgency. Place a time limit on a promotion and watch moderately interested shoppers become very interested.
A few years back, I was looking to buy a new couch. I saw these signs for a furniture store around town that said, “Going Out of Business. EVERYTHING MUST GO!!” I found the store, got a good deal on a new couch, and moved on with my life. The urgency message had done its job.
However, a year later when I was driving by that same furniture store — it was still “Going Out of Business”. The retailer created a false sense of urgency, completely losing my trust.
‘While supplies last’ seems dishonest if next month you’re promoting the same ‘limited’ inventory. When creating urgency, be honest about it. Using a false sense of urgency now might boost sales, but it could also drive customers away later.
One great way to boost conversions is to add scarcity and urgency messaging throughout your store. One of the easiest ways to add this type of messaging is by using well-placed product badges, like the Flair product badges Shopify app.
You can promote scarcity by promoting products that only have a limited quantity available. You can also add urgency by promoting limited time offers such as your current sale or promotion. Adding a dose of scarcity and urgency to your messaging should help increase sales since it can motivate shoppers that are on the fence to buy now “while supplies last”.
Below are messages that express limited time and limited quantities:
These messages communicate scarcity, urgency, or both and can potentially increase conversions, especially when used wisely.
When I was in Washington DC for the cherry blossom festival last year, I noticed Starbucks coffee shops everywhere. Without exaggeration, there was one on every other block. Maybe every third block (but still…). I wondered how Starbucks managed to put coffee shops so close together that still thrive? Part of the answer is:‘while supplies last.’
Throughout the year, Starbucks offers limited edition and seasonal drinks. And. People. Love. Them. Every autumn, Starbucks offers Pumpkin Spice lattes. And every year, droves of Starbucks lovers flock to the green mermaid for their pumpkin spice fix. And it isn’t only pumpkin spice. Starbucks uses “while supplies last” by offering Christmas drinks in special red cups (ooohhh, red…so mesmerizing, so festive, so give me one already!).
This use of “while supplies last” is partially responsible for Starbucks continued annual growth.
In addition to Starbucks, many other big companies use scarcity and urgency to create sales. Below are some other real-world examples:
Expedia and other travel sites use ‘while supplies last’ messages to motivate casual shoppers to book hotel rooms, flights, and rental cars. A search for hotels rooms on Expedia.com produces messages like “In High Demand!” and “Only 4 Rooms Left”. Notice that Expedia uses bold, red text to emphasize these messages. Many travel sites also sites offer a ‘Deal of the Day’ or a similar promotion, creating a sense of urgency.
Many e-commerce sites display stock quantities for some products. If a set of grilling tools you’ve considering buying for your dad shows Only 7 In Stock, you’re more likely to buy. This clear ‘while supplies last’ message can turn casual shoppers into conversions as they see how few of an item you have in stock.
Instead of focusing on scarcity, highlighting shipping deadlines can heighten the sense of urgency. Focus attention on your customers receiving purchases sooner with messages like “Orders placed by 2 pm qualify for next-day shipping.” Some e-commerce sites use a countdown to inform customers of the time left to purchase the item and still have it shipped in one day, two days, etc.
For sale items, Overstock.com creates urgency by displaying the time remaining on the sale. Using a red banner, this countdown shows customers how long the sale price lasts. Even though the item might still be available after the sale, the sale price is limited. This technique works especially well for flash sales. Like Expedia, Overstock emphasizes the message by using bold, red text.
Asking if Kohl’s is having a sale is like asking if the sun came up today. Pretty much every week, Kohl’s has sales and promotions.
Unless you have a recognizable, well-established brand and a loyal customer base like Kohl’s, your e-commerce customers may develop ‘promotion fatigue’. Under constant bombardment from messages about scarcity (While Supplies Last!) and urgency (2-Day Sale!), they tire out.
When working to create scarcity and urgency, know that there is such a thing as overkill. Your messages can become a broken record — sooner or later, people may turn you off.
“While supplies last” messages create scarcity and urgency. When combined, they create wants and needs which can boost conversions by turning window shoppers into buyers.
Scarcity forces people to choose between two or more options. It can also make your e-commerce products more desirable, especially when a customer has already considered a certain product.
Urgency compels customers to purchase now rather than waiting. Setting deadlines and using countdowns are excellent methods for creating urgency. However, be sure to stay honest about urgency — false urgency customers turns people off.