What Is The Scarcity Principle? Scarcity Principle In A Nutshell

The scarcity principle is an economic theory positing that scarce goods which are also in high demand cause an imbalance in the supply and demand equilibrium. However, it can also be applied to consumer and social psychology, and it is these applications that we will discuss in the rest of this article. The scarcity principle posits that the more difficult it is to obtain a product, the more valuable that product then becomes.

Understanding the scarcity principle

With that said, the scarcity principle states that consumers value something more if it is scarce. A similar definition was provided by author Robert B. Cialdini in his acclaimed book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He noted that “opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited.”

In the context of consumer purchase behavior, the scarcity principle is a motivator. Since consumers believe the scarce product will soon become unavailable, they value it more and are more likely to purchase it when compared to a situation where the product is abundant. Armed with this knowledge, brands use the scarcity principle to manipulate consumers into purchasing their products.

Why is the scarcity principle effective?

Cialdini suggests there are two main drivers of the scarcity principle.

1 – Consumers create mental short-cuts to deal with a complex world

Otherwise known as heuristics, these mental-short cuts are used to estimate the value of an item based on its scarcity. Rare items that are difficult to obtain are assumed to be worth more than abundant items that are easier to obtain. 

This heuristic is valid most of the time, but in some cases, it is invalid. 

2 – Scarcity limits opportunities, which reduces the freedom to choose

For better or worse, humans evolved to react when freedom of choice is limited or reduced. This is a survival instinct stemming from the fact that the impact of a loss is more severe than the impact of a comparable gain.

As a result, consumers are always on the lookout for potential losses and are hardwired to keep their options open. Fewer options mean less freedom of choice and the risk that as resources become less available, they may not be available at all in the future.

Whenever freedom of choice is threatened, the need for the consumer to retain their freedom makes them desire the product even more. As access to a product is threatened, in other words, the consumer makes a concerted and vigorous effort to possess that product

Examples of brands that used the scarcity principle

Let’s conclude this article by having a look at some case studies where the scarcity principle has been used effectively:


Nintendo is a Japanese consumer electronics and video company founded in 1889 as Nintendo Karuta – a manufacturer of decorated, hand-made playing cards. By the 1980s, the company made significant investments in a rising technology: video games. It then produced popular titles like Donkey Kong and, later on, Super Mario Bros. Today Nintendo generates revenues through video game franchise sales, e-commerce, and the Unfold System.

When the Wii was released in 2006, mass hysteria ensued as consumers clamored to purchase one. This continued for three years before the supply was comparable to demand. 

To increase scarcity, Nintendo capped production volume over that period and advised consumers to “stalk the UPS driver” to determine when a new shipment of Wiis was about to be delivered.


Starbucks is a retail company that sells beverages (primarily consisting of coffee-related drinks) and food. In 2022, Starbucks had 51% of company-operated stores vs. 49% of licensed stores. In 2022, company-operated stores accounted for more than 80% of total revenues, thus making Starbucks a chain business model

The coffee chain announced the Unicorn Frappuccino in April 2017 via an Instagram post with the caption “Available for a limited time at participating stores in the US, Canada & Mexico.”

The hashtag #unicornfrappuccino was posted nearly 160,000 times in response to the perceived value of the novel, time-limited beverage.


Groupon is a two-sided marketplace where local consumers meet deals from local merchants. The company makes money by selling local and travel services and goods. Its value proposition based on attracting local customers to local merchants is quite compelling. Local consumers instead get savings and discounts that they would not get elsewhere. The company measures its financial success in gross billings and revenues growth. Groupon generated over $2.8 billion in 2017, by selling its goods and services directly via its websites and mobile app, and indirectly via third-party affiliate sites, who get a commission for each sale.
Groupon is a two-sided marketplace where local consumers meet deals from local merchants. The company makes money by selling local and travel services and goods. Its value proposition based on attracting local customers to local merchants is quite compelling. Local consumers instead get savings and discounts that they would not get elsewhere. The company measures its financial success in gross billings and revenues growth. Groupon generated over $2.8 billion in 2017, by selling its goods and services directly via its websites and mobile app, and indirectly via third-party affiliate sites, who get a commission for each sale.

Discount service platform Groupon is a master of using the scarcity principle to persuade consumers to take advantage of its offers.

Like Starbucks, scarcity is created because each deal is available for a limited time only. Groupon uses social proof as an extra motivator, displaying the number of consumers who have purchased the deal and rated it highly. Humans interpret scarcity combined with social proof to mean that the product must be worth having since most others appear to be purchasing it.

Booking Holdings is the company the controls six main brands that comprise,, KAYAK,,, and OpenTable. Over 76% of the company revenues in 2017 came primarily via travel reservations commisions and travel insurance fees. Almost 17% came from merchant fees, and the remaining revenues came from advertising earned via KAYAK. As distribution strategy, the company spent over $4.5 billion in performance-based and brand advertising. 

Online reservation platform allows users to book a range of accommodations including hotels, apartments, holiday homes, and motels.

For applicable properties, shows the number of rooms left with additional text highlighted in red such as “Only 2 rooms left at this price on our site” or “3 other people looked for your dates in the last 24 hours”.

Additional Case Studies

  • Apple:
    • Apple is known for creating buzz and anticipation around its product launches by limiting initial supplies. When a new iPhone is released, consumers often line up outside Apple stores for hours or even days to secure one of the first units. The limited availability and long lines generate excitement and a sense of urgency among customers.
  • Tesla:
    • Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, has employed scarcity tactics by offering limited-time promotions and special editions of its vehicles. For example, Tesla has introduced “limited production” models like the Tesla Roadster Founder’s Series, which creates a sense of exclusivity and drives demand among its loyal customer base.
  • Luxury Fashion Brands:
    • Luxury fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci frequently use scarcity by producing limited quantities of their high-end products. These brands release limited-edition collections, exclusive collaborations, or seasonal designs, creating a perception of rarity and desirability.
  • Video Game Consoles:
    • Besides Nintendo, other video game console manufacturers like Sony (PlayStation) and Microsoft (Xbox) have leveraged scarcity principles during product launches. They limit the initial supply of consoles, leading to high demand, pre-orders, and often long wait times for consumers.
  • Fashion Sneakers:
    • Brands like Nike and Adidas use scarcity tactics for their sneaker releases. They often launch limited-edition sneaker models with small production runs. Sneaker enthusiasts eagerly await these releases, leading to quick sellouts and sometimes reselling at much higher prices.
  • Disney:
    • Disney has been known to create scarcity by “vaulting” its classic animated films. They release these films for a limited time before placing them back in the “Disney Vault” for several years. This strategy encourages consumers to purchase the films while they are available, driving sales.
  • Concert Tickets:
    • Promoters of live events, such as concerts and sports games, often use scarcity tactics to boost ticket sales. They may advertise that tickets are “selling out fast” or create a sense of urgency by offering early bird pricing for a limited time.
  • E-commerce Flash Sales:
    • Various e-commerce platforms use flash sales that are available for a short duration or in limited quantities. This encourages consumers to make quick purchase decisions to secure discounted items.
  • Tech Gadgets and Kickstarter Campaigns:
    • Tech startups often employ scarcity by offering early backers exclusive access to their products at a reduced price on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. This limited-time offer incentivizes people to support the campaign early.
  • Art Auctions:
    • Auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s utilize scarcity principles during art auctions. Rare and valuable artworks are put up for auction with the understanding that they may not become available again for a long time.

Key takeaways:

  • The scarcity principle posits that the more difficult a product is to obtain, the more valuable that product then becomes. In the context of consumer behavior, the scarcity principle motivates the consumer to purchase.
  • The scarcity principle is caused by consumers creating heuristics in an attempt to value items accurately. Scarcity also reduces freedom of choice which causes the individual to desire the product even more.
  • The scarcity principle has been used by many brands to successfully market their products. These include Starbucks, Groupon, Nintendo, and

Key Highlights

  • Definition: The scarcity principle is an economic and psychological theory that asserts that scarce goods, particularly those in high demand, create an imbalance in supply and demand equilibrium. In consumer psychology, the principle suggests that people tend to value something more if it is scarce, leading them to perceive limited availability as increased value.
  • Consumer Perception: The scarcity principle posits that consumers view products as more valuable when their availability is limited. This principle is based on the idea that the difficulty of obtaining a product contributes to its perceived value.
  • Robert B. Cialdini’s Perspective: Robert B. Cialdini, in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” stated that opportunities seem more valuable when they are limited in availability.
  • Drivers of the Scarcity Principle:
    1. Heuristics: People create mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, to estimate the value of an item based on its scarcity. Rare and hard-to-obtain items are often perceived as more valuable than easily available items.
    2. Freedom of Choice: The scarcity principle plays into humans’ innate desire for freedom of choice. Limited availability reduces options, triggering a sense of urgency to possess the product before it becomes unavailable.
  • Effectiveness of Scarcity: Scarcity taps into the heuristics individuals use to make quick judgments about value. Additionally, the psychological drive to preserve freedom of choice enhances the allure of scarce items.
  • Examples of Brands Using Scarcity:
    1. Nintendo: Limited production of the Wii console created high demand and led consumers to actively seek it, increasing its perceived value.
    2. Starbucks: The limited-time availability of the Unicorn Frappuccino prompted a surge in demand, driven by social media and the perception of exclusivity.
    3. Groupon: Groupon employs the scarcity principle by offering time-limited deals with social proof, driving consumer motivation to buy before the offer expires.
    4. Displaying the number of rooms left in a hotel creates a sense of urgency and scarcity, compelling users to make a booking.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).


Ergodicity is one of the most important concepts in statistics. Ergodicity is a mathematical concept suggesting that a point of a moving system will eventually visit all parts of the space the system moves in. On the opposite side, non-ergodic means that a system doesn’t visit all the possible parts, as there are absorbing barriers

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Metaphorical Thinking

Metaphorical thinking describes a mental process in which comparisons are made between qualities of objects usually considered to be separate classifications.  Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Google Effect

The Google effect is a tendency for individuals to forget information that is readily available through search engines. During the Google effect – sometimes called digital amnesia – individuals have an excessive reliance on digital information as a form of memory recall.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.

Compromise Effect

Single-attribute choices – such as choosing the apartment with the lowest rent – are relatively simple. However, most of the decisions consumers make are based on multiple attributes which complicate the decision-making process. The compromise effect states that a consumer is more likely to choose the middle option of a set of products over more extreme options.

Butterfly Effect

In business, the butterfly effect describes the phenomenon where the simplest actions yield the largest rewards. The butterfly effect was coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1960 and as a result, it is most often associated with weather in pop culture. Lorenz noted that the small action of a butterfly fluttering its wings had the potential to cause progressively larger actions resulting in a typhoon.

IKEA Effect

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that describes consumers’ tendency to value something more if they have made it themselves. That is why brands often use the IKEA effect to have customizations for final products, as they help the consumer relate to it more and therefore appending to it more value.

Ringelmann Effect 

Ringelmann Effect
The Ringelmann effect describes the tendency for individuals within a group to become less productive as the group size increases.

The Overview Effect

The overview effect is a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts when they look back at the Earth from space. The shift occurs because of the impressive visual spectacle of the Earth and tends to be characterized by a state of awe and increased self-transcendence.

House Money Effect

The house money effect was first described by researchers Richard Thaler and Eric Johnson in a 1990 study entitled Gambling with the House Money and Trying to Break Even: The Effects of Prior Outcomes on Risky Choice. The house money effect is a cognitive bias where investors take higher risks on reinvested capital than they would on an initial investment.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect describes the human tendency to rely on an initial piece of information (the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments or decisions. Price anchoring, then, is the process of establishing a price point that customers can reference when making a buying decision.

Decoy Effect

The decoy effect is a psychological phenomenon where inferior – or decoy – options influence consumer preferences. Businesses use the decoy effect to nudge potential customers toward the desired target product. The decoy effect is staged by placing a competitor product and a decoy product, which is primarily used to nudge the customer toward the target product.

Commitment Bias

Commitment bias describes the tendency of an individual to remain committed to past behaviors – even if they result in undesirable outcomes. The bias is particularly pronounced when such behaviors are performed publicly. Commitment bias is also known as escalation of commitment.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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