Over the past decade, marketing researchers have demonstrated a renewed interest in
unpacking the effects of scarcity on consumer behavior. This has led to a proliferation
of published research on the topic (see Blocker, et al., 2022; Cannon, et al., 2019,
and Hamilton, et al., 2019 for reviews). However, most of these research efforts have
studied the effects of resource scarcity from a consumer psychology perspective, while
research on the role of scarcity for marketing practice has been sparser. As this
special issue illustrates, there are still many avenues for research investigating
the role of scarcity in marketing. We draw from the 5Ps of the marketing mix (taken
from the 7Ps framework; Booms and Bitner, 1981; Das, et al., 2021) to identify open
research questions about the role of scarcity in marketing practice. The 5Ps framework
(i.e., Product, Price, Promotion, Place, and People) allows exploring the effects
of scarcity on both marketing strategy and consumer behavior. Below, we identify research
avenues for each of these topics in turn, which are summarized in Table 1.
Research opportunities about the role of scarcity for marketing across the 5Ps
Open research questions
When and why is scarcity less (vs. more) likely to impact the perceived value of products
(e.g., intangible vs. tangible)?
Which marketing cues (e.g., packaging, labels) are more (vs. less) likely to prompt
feelings of scarcity and impact product evaluation and/or consumption?
How do consumers experiencing financial (vs. time) scarcity respond to products intended
to save them money (vs. time), or to products intended to help them manage other potentially
shameful resources (e.g., calories)?
How do consumers respond to self-imposed (vs. externally imposed) scarcity and adopt
relevant resource-management products (e.g., budgeting app)?
How is the pain of paying experienced under resource scarcity?
How do consumers trade off resources (e.g., money vs. time) for product acquisition
when they are resource constrained?
How can a firm’s pricing strategy inadvertently hurt its more financially constrained
In which shopping environments are scarcity promotions less (vs. more) effective drivers
of purchase behavior?
How does experiencing resource scarcity impact consumers’ receptiveness to various
types of promotional messages?
When is a purchase more (vs. less) likely to be perceived as a saving (vs. an expense)
by resource constrained consumers?
Which type of promotional messaging (e.g., means to an end vs. end goal) is more (vs.
less) persuasive for consumers in need of resource management products (e.g., budgeting
How do consumers respond to a lack of availability versus access to products?
What are the effects of product unavailability? How does its experience differ from
that of limited availability? How can firms best manages consumers’ responses to unavailability?
Does resource scarcity make consumers less responsive to tools (e.g., algorithms,
AI) that would further deplete their sense of control?
When are resource constrained consumers more (vs. less) likely to see the benefits
(e.g., saving time) versus downsides (e.g., price discrimination) of tools such as
algorithms and AI?
What are the interpersonal dynamics across individuals or groups of varying levels
of resource scarcity (e.g., between wealthier salespeople and poorer customers, or
How should payoffs (e.g., smaller vs. larger, immediate vs. delayed) be structured
(e.g., loyalty program) in order to maintain resource-constrained customers’ motivation
and increase their retention?
Which types of rewards are more (vs. less) motivating for resource constrained customers
(e.g., based on how they want to address their experienced scarcity)?
What are the compounding effects of simultaneously lacking multiple types of resources
(e.g., products and money)?
Prior research on product scarcity has mostly studied it from the perspective of commodity
theory, which postulates that as a desired product (or service) becomes scarcer, consumers’
valuation of this product increases (see Cannon, et al., 2019 and Hamilton, et al.,
2019 for reviews). However, the nature of products (and services) has evolved since
most of the seminal work on commodity theory was conducted. Products can now vary
on other key dimensions such as tangibility (e.g., physical vs. digital goods), which
may affect their perceived value when scarce. For instance, some digital products
such as non-fungible tokens (i.e., NFTs) do not seem to accrue the same interest and
valuation when scarce than their physical counterparts (e.g., physical art), suggesting
a more muted relationship between product scarcity and value for some digital (vs.
physical) goods. Scarcity may be considered differently for less tangible products
(e.g., e-books, streaming services) than more tangible ones (e.g., physical books,
vinyl records) partly due to their differing levels of psychological ownership (Atasoy
& Morewedge, 2018; Goldsmith, et al., 2021). Whether, when, and why scarcity may be
less effective for increasing interest in less (vs. more) tangible products are open
research questions that have important implications for both marketing researchers
(e.g., boundaries of commodity theory) and practitioners (e.g., effectiveness of scarcity
In addition, research on resource scarcity has identified various contextual cues
(e.g., social comparison, news articles about macro-level scarcity) that prompt consumers
to feel as if they do not have enough resources (see Cannon, et al., 2019 for review).
However, less is known about marketing tactics that firms can control that may increase
scarcity perceptions and consequently change how products are evaluated and/or consumed.
For instance, Williamson et al. (2022) found that “sharing size” labels (vs. “super/king
size” or no labels) on food packaging prompt consumers to consume more of the food.
This is because “sharing size” labels indicate that the food is meant to be shared,
and thus vulnerable to being depleted by others (i.e., it may become scarce). Future
research should further unpack which types of packaging cues and product labels may
also trigger scarcity concerns and inadvertently impact consumers’ product evaluation
Many products and services are designed to help consumers better manage their resources
(e.g., money, time, calories), but resource-scarce consumers are often unwilling to
adopt such products. For example, consumers experiencing financial scarcity (vs. time
scarcity or control) experience more negative emotions and infer lower status positions
when offered gifts intended to save them money (vs. time), even if they would benefit
the most from such gifts (Lee-Yoon, et al., 2020). However, it is less clear whether
financially (vs. time) constrained consumers would have similarly adverse responses
to purchasing for themselves products intended to save them money (vs. time) – or
help them manage other potentially shameful resources (e.g., calories). This could
also have important implications for the distribution of such products (e.g., public
vs. private shopping contexts), as perceived social judgment (vs. self-image) may
impact consumers’ interest.
Finally, resource management products can allow consumers to impose scarcity on themselves,
such as when deciding to restrict one’s spending or caloric intake with the help of
an app. However, there is a lack of research on whether self-imposed scarcity (e.g.,
deciding to use a food tracking app) versus externally imposed scarcity (e.g., having
your doctor restrict your caloric intake) produce distinct (vs. overlapping) behavioral
consequences. Future research might examine this to allow for a better understanding
of how and when such tools might be most effective.
Purchasing products and services requires parting with money, which may be especially
painful for more (vs. less) financially constrained consumers. However, there is little
research, to our knowledge, on the pain of paying (i.e., the psychological distress
consumers experience when contemplating or making a purchase; Rick, 2018) under resource
scarcity. This is an important research opportunity for marketing academia and practice,
as consumers tend to be less likely to buy (or buy again) the more pain of paying
they experience (Rick, 2018). This pain can be affected by the price of the products
(or services) and/or consumers’ subjective perceptions of their own financial constraints,
which can arise independently of their objective wealth (Cannon, et al., 2019).
In addition to the money spent on the actual purchase, consumers must incur various
costs to acquire products, such as the time spent on searching, evaluating, and purchasing
products. However, there is a lack of research on how consumers make trade-offs among
resources (e.g., money vs. time) for product acquisition, especially when they are
resource constrained. Financially constrained consumers tend to also be more time
constrained (Giurge, et al., 2020), which can create additional burdens on these consumers.
For instance, prior research has shown that lower (vs. higher) income consumers are
willing to travel farther for smaller discounts, due to their lower sensitivity to
context effects (e.g., proportional thinking; Shah, et al., 2015). This finding suggests
that lower (vs. higher) income consumers not only undervalue the time they spend for
acquiring a product, but also the money they spend on the purchase, as they are willing
to trade off more time for less savings, even if they are resource constrained on
both fronts. A better understanding of how consumers trade off resources for product
acquisition would allow firms to develop pricing (and distribution) strategies that
could lessen the burdens on their more constrained customers.
In addition, although prior research has identified ways in which pricing may inadvertently
harm financially constrained consumers, more research is warranted to better understand
the breadth of unintended consequences of a firms’ pricing strategy. For instance,
liquidity constraints often prevent more (vs. less) financially constrained households
from taking advantage of intertemporal savings strategies, such as bulk buying or
accelerating purchase timing to take advantage of a deal, even if they would benefit
the most from such strategies (Orhun & Palazzolo, 2019). Further, even though they
are more price sensitive, poorer (vs. wealthier) consumers are willing to pay higher
prices and accept lower-value rewards to avoid shopping at commercial settings where
they expect to be discriminated against (e.g., a high-end shopping mall; Jacob, et
al., 2022). In addition, poorer (vs. wealthier) consumers are less likely to take
advantage of benefits programs that help them save money (Hall, et al., 2014); an
effect that might carry over to related services such as payment plans. As many consumers
are feeling financially vulnerable (Salisbury, et al., 2022), firms who aim to be
socially responsible need to have a deeper understanding of the unintended effects
of their pricing strategies (and related services) on such populations.
Scarcity promotions (e.g., limited-time, limited-quantity) have been shown to be powerful
drivers of purchase behavior (see Hmurovic, et al., 2023 for review). However, the
shopping contexts in which scarcity promotions are used have evolved since most of
the seminal work on such promotions was conducted. For instance, recent work has shown
that time scarcity promotions (e.g., countdown timers) have become much less effective
online (vs. offline; Hmurovic, et al., 2023), partly due to their proliferation in
online shopping environments, which has made consumers wearier of them in that context.
In a similar vein, the product shortages and quantity restrictions experienced throughout
the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted how consumers now respond to limited-quantity
promotions. Thus, there are many research opportunities about whether scarcity promotions
are still effective in “newer” shopping environments (e.g., online, mobile) and contexts
Experiencing resource scarcity may also impact how consumers respond to promotional
messages. For instance, Goldsmith et al. (2020) found that, for consumers experiencing
resource scarcity, the effectiveness of different types of messaging (i.e., highlighting
personal vs. prosocial benefits) on their interest in sustainable products differed
based on their price. Specifically, prosocial benefit messages (e.g., “save the environment”)
increased purchase intentions for lower price sustainable products, whereas personal
benefit messages (e.g., “save money”) increased purchase intentions for higher price
sustainable products (Goldsmith, et al., 2020). Future research could further investigate
how firms can best communicate promotional messages to resource-constrained consumers,
and if messaging effectiveness varies based on other Ps of the marketing mix (e.g.,
product type, price).
In addition, there are research opportunities regarding how consumers react to promotional
messages related to their own experienced scarcity. For example, firms sometimes employ
slogans and other promotional messages that attempt to frame purchasing their goods
as a way to ultimately save money, but there is a lack of research about whether such
promotional messages prompt consumers to construe such products in terms of what they
can save in the future (vs. what they have to spend now). As another example, promotional
messages for resource management products (and services) can frame better managing
one’s resources as a means to achieve other goals (e.g., saving money to buy a house),
or frame better resource management as the end goal (e.g., saving money to become
richer). Presently, there is a lack of research regarding when and why each type of
messaging may be more (vs. less) persuasive when consumers feel their resources (e.g.,
money) are constrained. Future research could investigate whether an “end goal” (vs.
“means to other goals”) framing is more (less) threatening, and thus less (more) effective,
because it focuses on the experienced scarcity (vs. alternative goals).
Consumers may be unable to acquire or consume products (or services) due to either
a lack of availability (i.e., extent to which products/services are present in consumers’
environment) or a lack of access (i.e., extent to which available products/services
can be obtained by consumers; Blocker, et al., 2022). Although prior research on product
scarcity has investigated the effects of a lack of availability (e.g., product shortages
due to a lack of supply and/or high demand), and prior research on impoverished consumers
has investigated the effects of a lack of access (e.g., food deserts, service-related
discrimination; see Blocker, et al., 2022 and Hamilton, et al., 2019 for reviews),
there are many research opportunities related to the roles of unavailability and inaccessibility
in the marketplace and their interplay. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic created
both a lack of availability of (e.g., product shortages) and a lack of access to (e.g.,
purchase quantity restrictions) various products, but it is unclear whether consumers’
perceptions of and responses to the scarcity varied based on the cause, or when both
were experienced simultaneously (e.g., across a grocery store). In addition, given
that restricted access is a common marketing practice (e.g., limited edition product,
VIP experience), future research could investigate how consumers respond to the various
ways access may be restricted (e.g., lottery, pricing).
Further, the availability of products can be limited to various degrees, which can
increase their desirability due to the scarcity principle (see Hamilton, et al., 2019
for review), up to the point where they become unavailable. Product unavailability
can decrease desirability due to the frustration it causes (Verhallen, 1982). Research
on the psychology of zero has shown that people perceive a zero probability substantially
differently than they do small positive probabilities (Shampanier, et al., 2007),
which suggests that the experience of complete unavailability may differ from that
of scarcity. Although there has been extensive research on limited availability, less
is known about unavailability (Cannon, et al., 2019). There are thus many research
opportunities about the role of unavailability (e.g., on product substitution; Hamilton,
et al., 2019), how its experience differs from that of scarcity, and how firms can
best manage consumers’ responses to it (e.g., in terms of brand switching; Khan and
DePaoli, 2023). This has important implications for marketing practice, as more supply
chain breakdowns and shortages are expected in the future (e.g., due to climate change,
an aging workforce, future pandemics).
Lastly, prior research has shown that experiencing resource scarcity can make consumers
feel a loss of control (see Cannon, et al., 2019 for a review), which may make consumers
less responsive to products (or services) that would further deplete their sense of
control, such as having to rely on algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI) for
decision-making (André, et al., 2018). Such tools are increasingly used to support
product distribution (e.g., product search and recommendation), but knowledge gaps
remain as to how consumers experiencing resource scarcity would respond to them, and
when they might be more (vs. less) likely to see their benefits (e.g., saving time)
versus their downsides (e.g., a loss of personal agency).
There is limited research on the interpersonal effects of resource scarcity – that
is, how resource scarcity affects consumer decision-making involving others (see Blocker,
et al., 2022 for review; Hosany and Hamilton, 2022). For instance, prior research
in sociology has shown that some wealthier consumers experience psychological discomfort
when interacting with poorer service workers (e.g., their housekeeper), due to their
deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent (Sherman 2017). In a similar vein,
salespeople often have to interact with customers of varying socioeconomic backgrounds,
which may impact how they deliver their services, as well as their customers’ perceptions
of how they are being treated (e.g., discrimination). Interpersonal dynamics such
as these have important implications for retailing, service marketing, and personal
In addition, there are many research opportunities for probing the effects of resource
scarcity on motivation and goal pursuit, which have implications for customer relationship
management and loyalty programs. For instance, although prior research has shown that
experiencing resource scarcity tends to make consumers more myopic (e.g., preferring
a smaller immediate payoff over a larger future one), recent work has shown that providing
financially constrained consumers with a smaller immediate payoff increased their
likelihood of being willing to wait for a larger payoff (van der Heijden, et al.,
2022). Such finding can help inform the design of a rewards structure targeted to
resource constrained customers, as smaller more frequent (vs. larger less frequent)
rewards might be more motivating for (and thus help better retain) such customers.
This could be tested in future research. Further, prior work has argued that resource
constrained consumers are motivated by different goals (i.e., directly addressing
their experienced scarcity vs. indirectly restoring their sense of control) depending
on whether they believe their scarcity-related situation is changeable (vs. not; Cannon,
et al., 2019). This finding may help firms identify the types of rewards that would
be more (vs. less) motivating for resource constrained customers through understanding
the factors that shape consumers’ perceived ability to address their experienced scarcity
(e.g., economic recession, unemployment rates).
Finally, although researchers have started unpacking the conditions under which lacking
different types of resources produce divergent consequences (e.g., money vs. time;
Lee-Yoon, et al., 2020), there is a lack of research on the compounding effects of
simultaneously lacking multiple types of resources (e.g., money, time, and space;
Hosany and Hamilton, 2022), which is a common occurrence for consumers. Investigating
such compounding effects would help illuminate how scarcity induced by the marketing
mix interacts with scarcity experienced by consumers in their everyday lives (e.g.,
products vs. resources; Hamilton, et al., 2019). For instance, future research could
test whether resource constrained consumers react more negatively to scarcity marketing
tactics because it causes further rumination on their feelings of resource scarcity.
We hope this commentary will help marketing academics and practitioners appreciate
the fact that there are diverse research opportunities for expanding our understanding
of scarcity’s relevance to marketing. To spark new research ideas, we offered several
open and undertheorized avenues for future research pertaining to the 5Ps of the marketing
mix (Booms & Bitner, 1981; Das, et al., 2021), but this list is far from exhaustive.
We hope it will guide researchers in generating even more research ideas about scarcity
that will deepen our understanding of this ubiquitous and fascinating phenomenon.