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Driving online conversions through scarcity and urgency

We are all familiar with the chaotic ‘Black Friday’ sales scenes in which throngs of eager shoppers descend on the high-street and exchange blows over heavily discounted flat-screen TVs. Although an extreme example, this demonstrates the effects of two key behavioural influencers; scarcity of availability, and the urgency to acquire goods before a limited supply is exhausted. Increasingly, these behavioural influencers are being adapted by businesses online to drive conversions and encourage consumers to make purchasing decisions more rapidly.

In his 1984 publication ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, Dr. Robert B. Cialdini identified ‘scarcity’ as one of the six key principles of influence used to drive sales. The perception that things are more desirable the scarcer they are is hardwired deep within the human psyche. A study carried out in 1975 involved participants being offered identical cookies from two separate jars – one containing 10 cookies, the other containing just two. The participants valued the cookies from the jar containing two cookies higher than the jar containing 10, which supported the notion that humans are drawn to things that are scarce.

‘Urgency’ is another powerful psychological impulse which can cause humans to suspend deliberate thought and act quickly when a perceived time limit is introduced. Coupling scarcity tactics with urgency can be used to encourage consumers to act on these impulses and convert sales faster. Many examples of these tactics can be found online as businesses seek to drive conversions in a competitive marketplace.

Scarcity and urgency tactics – online usage

Limited supply: Many websites highlight the limited supply of goods or services to create a sense of scarcity. This is often used on booking websites such as Ryanair which highlight that only a limited number of a given product or service is available and the customer needs to act quickly to avoid missing out:



Time limitations: Some online retailers encourage customers to avoid procrastination and place orders quickly through implementing countdown timers. The examples below reinforce a sense of urgency and push customers to make a decision within a limited timeframe to benefit from quicker delivery (Amazon) or to ensure they secure the product (Ticketmaster):





Use of colour: Use of certain colours has been shown to imply urgency in online properties. The below example from demonstrates use of the colour red to reinforce urgency in a number of places. The notifications stating that this particular room is ‘in high demand!’ and that ‘there are 2 people looking at this hotel’ work to encourage behavioural responses triggered by perceived scarcity and urgency.


Don’t overdo it!

Whilst these techniques can be an effective way of encouraging customers to be more decisive and complete transactions faster, they only work if the customer believes in the validity of the perceived scarcity or urgency being claimed. Customers will quickly be able to tell if that ‘extremely limited’ iPad cover which is in such ‘high demand’ remains available on the website for months on end and they will ultimately lose confidence in the retailer.