High on your own supply

Why are some people susceptible to scarcity marketing?

Greetings! In this week’s The Joint Account, Heather shares what it’s like to be a gullible consumer, which she claims is not (entirely) her fault. Do you buy it? Read on to decide.

Six months ago on Valentine’s Day, The Bar dropped its restock of oversized varsity sweatshirts at 3pm. What is The Bar, you ask? A flirty and floofy luxury clothing brand that doesn’t quite make sense for me. Imagine you are 22 and trying to seduce someone, so you hit the town in a silky slip dress lined with feathers, lure him back to your apartment, and change into your varsity sweatshirt with no pants on. Both outfits are from The Bar. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I first saw the sweatshirt on Claudia Oshry, a 28-year-old mega-influencer whose content I consume enough to be influenced. The collection had been sold out for a while, and my feed nudged, poked, and reminded me of this fact. I followed its Instagram account and tagged two friends to enter a sweepstakes to win a box of the sweatshirts in every color (I lost). The Bar’s stories counted down until the restock: one week, two days, 16 hours until our sweatshirts make their triumphant return. I put it on my calendar. None of this makes sense for me. Yes, I do love sweatshirts. But I think, more than that, I love having something other people don’t have.

Scarcity increases demand. We should know—we all lived through it. Supply chain issues from the height of the pandemic still reverberate throughout the country and impact our lives today. I would never equate the visceral relief of securing paper goods or produce or Children’s Tylenol or baby formula with the hedonistic desire for a sweatshirt. But when rooted in something other than survival, why does scarcity influence some of us more than others?

Consumers want things that are scarce, because the uniqueness we gain in having them differentiates us from others. The Journal of Retailing relates the need to be unique to a “snob effect,” whereby the demand for exclusive products decreases when more people consume them. Thus, the real marker of desirability is not mass adoption and consumption but rather uniqueness, which is driven by exclusivity imposed by the retailer. This is not the same as simply running out of a product. Whether scarcity is the consequence of a product’s organic popularity or constructed to appear that way by the brand, scarcity must be visible for it to matter. In other words, we have to keep being reminded that something is hard to get in order for us to care.

Digital commerce reigns supreme, so we see this play out every day. Our shopping carts tell us there are “only a few left!” and our apps offer exclusive merch drops at certain times and our Instagram Stories count down limited-edition releases and our TikTok algos feed us impossible-to-find Stanley tumblers in the colors we want most. Technology deploys scarcity as a marketing feature in subtle ways that compound to change our purchasing behavior.

Social media plays a huge role, too. We all hope to maintain a baseline of conformity but seek opportunities to showcase our uniqueness. It’s a flex. It’s the snob factor. But it’s life.

Millennials’ desire for scarce products is not new. Two examples from our childhood illustrate how early this concept was ingrained into our habits. For one, Beanie Babies were the first toys I ever treated as collectibles. Everyone searched tirelessly for “first generation” and “rare” Beanie Babies. My mom still has the purple Princess Diana bear in a collector’s box in her house, holding out hope that it will matter someday. The other hot items were POGS, which at least we could play and trade at such a low cost point. Once, someone bought me a rare “OJ Simpson In The Slammer” slammer, which was truly an absurd cross-pollination of capitalism and current events.

But the barriers to participate were higher back then. We had to fit our frantic demands into the timeframe of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. We would call, wait, and call back again to check inventories. We stood in lines. Now, we barely have to move our bodies to engage in this ravenous consumer behavior. My thumbs do all the work. I don’t even need to enter my address—my face confirms the purchase. The drop could be at midnight. I could be half unconscious and still get what I want.

The internet creates a slippery slope to indulge; but admittedly, it’s just a facilitator, not the reason I’m so susceptible. I’ve sought uniqueness since my early Twenties, when my favorite weekend activity was designer vintage hunting around New York City. I loved finding one-of-a-kind pieces and imagining their stories, never minding their imperfections. They made me feel special at a time when I was most feeling like a statistic.

I don’t have access to any coping mechanisms like that now. I have malls. The Good Mall is 20 minutes away, and even when I go there, stores are half stocked. I rely on brand’s “edits” and my algos and my friend’s 22-year-old babysitters to tell me where trends exist, because that’s what I have to work with in my limited time and capacity. And yes, maybe I do enjoy the little hit of dopamine that follows my successful purchase of a scarce product. It’s okay to admit that you do, too (within reason, of course).

Back to last Valentine’s Day. 3pm.

Pickup from school was in five minutes, and there was a cell reception dead zone on that exact block. I enlisted Doug to perform a Valentine’s Day act of chivalry and purchase the sweatshirt from home on his laptop. But he had trouble loading our shipping address. The site flooded—too many people. Now he’s invested, too. We clicked and refreshed, clicked and refreshed. Beige. No, red. Okay, beige. Whatever checks out. My daughter, now in tow, had no clue what was going on. Apple Pay went through—my adrenaline, my heart. I got two sweatshirts. I won.

A week later, they arrived in separate packages. I tore them open, and wow. They sucked. As my friend said, “They feel like the sweatshirts we bought on the Ocean City boardwalk in high school.” This was true. I felt kind of silly becoming just another victim of scarcity marketing.

Obviously, it’s unwise to give in all the time. But marry our digital landscape with a desire to feel special, and it’s no surprise people find themselves here. I’m sure I’ll do it again. I just hope next time, I’ll be right.

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