The Scarcity Effect

Wow, it’s been a fast and furious week! As I mentioned, I was on a business trip to one of our sister companies last week. I had a great inspiration for a blog post during a trip to Starbucks, and while contemplating this post, I made a connection to one of the theories we discussed in my Consumer Behavior class. I love making connections between my current academic pursuits and the real world! (Yes, I really am that much of a marketing nerd). We’ve been talking about the “scarcity effect” in my class, which basically states that when consumers feel like there is a limited amount of an item, the item must be more valuable. Think about collector’s items, or “limited edition” cars or toys. Everyone decides to stock up, because when the items run out, surely they’ll be worth more in the aftermarket.

Starbucks utilizes this effect all the time, particularly with their holiday offerings. Lots of customers wait in anticipation for the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice latte for the fall, and the Gingerbread latte for Christmas. This past year, Starbucks introduced the Caramel Brulee latte at Christmas, and it was a HIT. Personally, I LOVED this drink, and I would hit Starbucks a few extra times during the week to grab one, since I knew I wouldn’t be able to get it once the new year rolled around. I justified my additional purchases with the thought that I could only get it for a month, so I needed to stock up. The scarcity effect for these seasonal offerings has been marketing gold for Starbucks, as they’ve increased their sales when customers “stock up” on the limited edition product.

But what happens when you take the products off the market? During our trip last week, a barista mentioned that they STILL had customers asking for the Caramel Brulee latte. Upon hearing that they could not purchase this beverage, some customers abandoned the purchase altogether! Wait, Starbucks might be losing customers because they’ve stopped offering a popular product, that was known to be a limited time offering? Apparently so. This is where my marketing brain kicks in, and makes me ask, “Should Starbucks bring back the Caramel Brulee latte?” It doesn’t seem like customers have the same response to the Pumpkin Spice latte, so it would make sense to keep increasing short-term sales of each store by utilizing the scarcity effect for this beverage. But, if they’re losing customers after pulling a more popular seasonal offering, it might make sense to bring it back “for a limited time”, or add it to the menu as a regular offering. From my observation of one, I would be more likely to increase my purchases if they brought back the Caramel Brulee latte. I normally buy a Peppermint latte, which costs about $3.00. However, if Starbucks offered the Caramel Brulee latte, I would increase my purchase by $.75, at least every so often. I think it would be an interesting study for them to try bringing back the Caramel Brulee latte for a limited time this summer to see if it’s still got the clout that it had at Christmas. If it does, maybe Starbucks should consider the sales potential when the scarcity effect is NOT influencing the sales of this product.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to spend more, and spend often if they brought back a limited edition beverage? Are there seasonal offerings that you wish would be made available year-round?

One thought on “The Scarcity Effect

  1. Pingback: Scarcity Revisited » Consciously Corporate - When business is your life.

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