social sciences

Scarcity principle: why we want the limited edition

What we want to have is not only influenced by how much we like the product but also how much others like it. Economics and the market are often explained in terms of demand and supply, which in theory can determine the price of the product. But studying demand and supply is also imperative to psychologists, as there are many underlying cognitive factors in buying products. In this post, I will discuss one of those factors, the scarcity principle.

Running low on supply
Apparently, we use others’ preferences as signals to find out whether a product is good or not. When we walk through the supermarket aisle, we use quick mental heuristics (a rule of thumb). One of those heuristics is the scarcity principle. Seeing that there are only a few products left tells us that the demand is high, therefore the product must be good, right? This is what several experiment settings have found. Not only telling consumers that ‘there are a few left!’ but seeing the visual display of a few more wine bottles left can trigger people to opt for that particular wine type/brand.¹
Unfortunately, I don’t know whether retailers actively put this into practice by intentionally filling aisles with small amounts of products. As supermarkets, for instance, can use this to up the sales by continuously stocking a few items at a time.

But what about limited edition?
Every now and then manufacturers decide to only produce a few product and market it as ‘limited edition’. Big brands will create unique shoes, perfumes, phone designs, or watches which often sell for high prices. However, this is different from the aforementioned wine bottle situation in a supermarket. Consumers that want these types of products probably don’t want it because ‘there’s only a few left, everyone wants them’. But there are more underlying factors at play. Limited editions are often used for conspicuous products.  These are products to show off one’s status. Thus buying limited editions is to display uniqueness, because you’re one of the few who owns a specific product.² But as for the other side of the scarcity principle, people want a product because everyone else wants it, so it must be good.

1. Van Herpen, E., Pieters, R., & Zeelenberg, M. (2014). When less sells more or less: The scarcity principle in wine choice. Food Quality and Preference36, 153-160.
2. Gierl, H., & Huettl, V. (2010). Are scarce products always more attractive? The interaction of different types of scarcity signals with products’ suitability for conspicuous consumption. International Journal of Research in Marketing27(3), 225-235.

social sciences

Consumer choices #2 How we choose?!

Imagine you’re standing at the candy aisle again. You’re still looking for the best possible milk chocolate bar. So far we’ve seen that having too many options might not be very beneficial for your actual choice outcome. But how will you end up choosing?

I’m assuming that in your lifetime you’ll end up being involved in more choices than just trying to find tasty chocolate bars. You are probably aware of the fact that you’re looking at different options… all day. Should I read this entire blog post? What am I going to eat for dinner? What time should I set my alarm clock? Should I take the job?

If we look at ‘making choices’ in a consumer perspective, it’s interesting to look from a brand’s perspective. Say you’re trying to sell a new product, but there’s already fierce competition from other brands in the same market branch. How are you going to advertise your product to make it stand out? You will have to know how people process information. And multiple researchers have come up with different models on how and when we make choices.

A model that looks at information processing is the Heuristic-Systematic processing model (Chen, Duckworth, Chaiken, 1999). According to this model we have two different ways to process information.

  • First, we could take the heuristic route. This means we’ll use heuristics, these are simple rules of thumb to solve problems. When engaging in this type of processing, we might look at the packaging of the chocolate bars. In the Netherlands, we seem to have this unwritten rule that all milk chocolate is wrapped in blue. Relying on heuristics, we might grab the nearest bar with blue wrapping. We’re more likely to rely on cues, like the color of the packaging, when (a) the issue is not very important to us, (b) we’re under time pressure, or (c) not very motivated.
  • But we can also take the systematic route. Using this route, we’re trying to take in all available information, scrutinizing every detail, and analyzing everything. This way of information processing means using a lot of cognitive effort. In our candy aisle scenario, we would study all the bars, and look for information we find important. Are we into fair trade? Are we limiting ourselves to a certain amount of calories? Do we have a budget? We will compare every piece of information we find important. So when will we spend hours browsing the whole aisle? 1. When the matter is personally relevant to us (Chaiken, 1980)! And we’re just so incredibly passionate about the perfect bar of milk chocolate. 2. When we want to be accurate! So our bar can’t surpass 500 calories. 3. And when we have defense motivation! This means that we care a lot for judgments related to our ‘selves’. In our case, we are looking for chocolate brand that uses fair trade. Because we see ourselves as being nice to others on the planet.

A matter of self-control?
Let’s say you were visiting the grocery store to only get milk and cereal. Yet, you happened to pass the candy aisle and stop for a second. You’re telling yourself to continue walking to the check-out. Because for whatever reason (whether it be a specific diet, or budget reasons) chocolate wasn’t on your shopping list. But in a split second you do grab yourself a tasty chocolate bar. Why?!
Baumeister, Vohs, and Tice, (2007) have developed a model that explains how self-control might work. They use the ‘muscle metaphor’. Our self-control is referred to as a muscle, that will be depleted of energy after it has been used for awhile. So if you have been fighting off temptations all day (not getting angry, staying focused on your work, patiently waiting, etc) it will become harder and harder to practice self-control.
Researchers have even suggested that being low on blood glucose can decrease our self-control (Gailliot et al., 2007). So eating chocolate before shopping should help you refrain from impulse purchases.
Vohs, and Faber (2007) found that once participants’ were low on self-control, they were more likely to buy more and spend more money!

The supermarkets are manipulating you!
North, Hargreaves, and McKendrick  (1999) conducted a very interesting field experiment in a supermarket. This is an experimental setting in which people are looked at in their ‘natural habitat’. Supermarkets either played French or German music, and the experimenters checked to see if customers were more likely to buy French or German wine. And guess what? When French music was played in the background, more French wine was sold! This was also the case for the German wines. And after participants were asked if they were aware of the fact that their choices had been influenced by music, they reported not knowing about this at all!


Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current directions in psychological science, 16(6), 351-355.

Chaiken, S. (1980). Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 39(5), 752.

Chen, S., Duckworth, K., & Chaiken, S. (1999). Motivated heuristic and systematic processing. Psychological Inquiry, 10(1), 44-49.

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., … & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(2), 325.

North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., & McKendrick, J. (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selections. Journal of Applied psychology, 84(2), 271

Vohs, K. D., & Faber, R. J. (2007). Spent resources: Self-regulatory resource availability affects impulse buying. Journal of consumer research,33(4), 537-547.

Photo source: By Simon A. Eugster (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons