Scarcity – the Value of Limited Supply

“Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust.” – Zig Ziglar

Have you ever noticed that the more inaccessible something becomes, the more people want it… no matter how inconsequential the item may be in terms of their actual needs?

This type of reaction was seen at its worst in 1983, when Christmas shoppers nearly rioted in their quest for Cabbage Patch Kids. Interestingly, the manufacturer of the dolls was quoted as saying: “We really create the market. We create the demand itself.”

In conjunction with that statement, the company faced charges of false advertising by the Consumer Affairs Department of New York’s Nassau County, which accused them of “harassing” children with advertisements for dolls that were unavailable – offering goods without intent to supply.

Adding fuel to the fire, the dolls were constantly in the media. News programs regularly ran video clips of Cabbage-Patch-seeking mobs, creating a great deal of social proof that this was the hottest toy on the market… and, at the same time, confirming its scarcity.

Whether an intended tactic or not, the limited quantity of Cabbage Patch Kids, combined with the false-advertising charge (supporting the fact that supplies were limited) and the media coverage (tremendous social proof), created a situation that clearly shows the potential power that psychological influence can play in marketing.

Scarcity lends a sense of urgency that otherwise would not exist. Just think about it. What four words make you – and most other people – really want something?


When we hear those words, a desire starts to build within us. Whether the item in question is something we actually need has nothing to do with it. Suddenly, owning this elusive product becomes important.

You can use the principle of scarcity to create desire in your own prospective customers. And you don’t need to make any false claims to generate high demand. You do it by designating a specific, limited number of items to be sold, by placing a ceiling on the number of spaces available, by putting a deadline on the offer… or any combination of the above.

Limiting the Number of Items

When establishing any type of a limit, you need to make sure you have a reason for it. If you have 10,000 widgets in inventory, it would be difficult to justify offering only 3,000 of them just to spur sales.

However, if you have just received a shipment of 125 super-charged, top-of-the-line widgets that aren’t normally available in the United States… that’s another story.

You’ll want to let your customers know that there are only 125 available for sale. Tell them that they will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Remind them that this may be their only chance to own one. Back that up by letting them know that an offer of this type may never be seen again.

Build in urgency. If they don’t act right now, they may miss the opportunity completely!

The limited number can be reinforced by performing a countdown … sending your prospects additional letters or e-mails informing them of how many are left. This can be an effective tactic, because, as the number dwindles, the reality of the scarcity increases the urgency to order – or miss out.

Limiting the Number of Slots Available

The same tactic used in limiting the number of items for sale can be applied to the number of slots available. The reasoning behind it will (usually) be very different – but, again, it has to be realistic.

A trading service, for example, will often limit the number of their subscribers, because they are dealing in thinly traded securities. A seminar will limit the number of their participants, because of available space. And, sometimes, limits are placed simply for the sake of exclusivity. After all, what’s so special about belonging to a 50,000-member club?

Limiting the Time of the Offer

Placing a deadline on an offer can spur a nice flurry of sales. But, once again, you have to make it realistic. If your deadline is far out into the future, your initial advertising campaigns won’t generate a lot in the way of sales, because there will be no sense of urgency.

Inversely, if you make the deadline too soon, you severely limit the number of responses you’ll get. And extending the deadline to pick up more sales kills the believability not only of this offer, but of your next deadline offer as well.

The principle of scarcity works. As long as you apply it to realistic, truth-based offers, you’ll see your sales soar.

[Ed. Note: Sandy Franks is the editor of Monthly Copywriting Genius, which reveals the secrets behind the strongest direct-response promotions in the mail, in space advertising, and on the Internet today, from the best copywriters in the business.]