623 Advances in Consumer Research
Volume 32, © 2005
How Product Scarcity Impacts on Choice: Snob and Bandwagon Effects
Erica van Herpen, Wageningen University
Rik Pieters, Tilburg University
Marcel Zeelenberg, Tilburg University
The value of products is not only determined by the utility that
consumers derive from the products’ attributes and their functional
consequences, but has an important social component as well.
Specifically, scarce products are generally deemed valuable, inde-
pendent of the utility that their intrinsic attributes deliver. This
effect has been found in several studies and appears robust (Lynn
1991). This paper identifies two distinct routes through which
scarcity can increase product choice. These routes are expected to
have distinct effects in the product valuation process, which have
until now not been examined in detail.
The first route examines scarcity due to excess demand.
Consumers see that others have bought the product, and this may
induce them to follow that behavior. This effect can occur out of
conformity with others. Consumers may also extract information
about the value of a product from the buying behavior of others.
When consumers are unsure about the value of products, informa-
tion on the valuation of others can help refine their own valuations.
Hence, scarcity due to excess demand increases inferences of
product popularity and quality. This is related to the bandwagon
effect described in economic literature.
The second route concerns scarcity due to insufficient supply,
where product exclusiveness leads to inferences of product quality
(snob-effect). Consumers value the exclusivity of possessing rare
products, and may see these products as a means to emphasize their
uniqueness. Being one of the few who own a particular product may
increase the product utility. We examine how scarcity operates in
both routes, which theoretically exclude each other. By separating
the two routes, we hope to gain new insights into the common
situation where product scarcity influences consumer choice, and
where less of a product increases sales.
To gain more insight into the two routes, and the dual forces
of following others (bandwagon) versus being different from others
(snob), our study relates these routes to consumers’ need-for-
uniqueness (NFU). The ability of scarce products to create a sense
of uniqueness has been proposed as a reason for scarcity effects
(Fromkin 1970). We propose that NFU only moderates the relation
between scarcity and quality when scarcity is due to supply limita-
tions, not when it is due to excess demand. After all, excess demand
implies that the product is popular rather than exclusive.
As an application area, this paper examines the influence of
product scarcity as communicated by empty shelf space in stores.
The visible (lack of) supply of a product is powerful signal of
product scarcity (Stiff, Johnson & Tourk 1975). When a product is
almost out of stock, this may act as a scarcity cue, and it is a situation
that consumers commonly experience during shopping trips. In
fact, if our research indeed shows that product scarcity, as expressed
through empty shelf space, increases preference and choice of
scarce products, this implies, somewhat counter intuitively, that
reduced stocks promote increased sales.
Two experiments test our framework. The first experiment
examines both scarcity caused by excess demand, and scarcity
caused by limited supply in a virtual shopping environment for a
sample of the Dutch population. This study confirms that scarcity
due to excess demand leads to inferences of product popularity and
quality, and thereby increases product choice. In a second experi-
ment, we used a different setting (liquor store). To gain more
insights into the processes underlying the scarcity effects on choice,
we also examined the influence of NFU. In this second experiment,
the reason for empty shelf space and the degree of empty shelf space
were manipulated between-participants. Each participant viewed a
shelf with two different wine bottles on the computer screen. One
of the wines was scarce, and product evaluations were asked for
both products, within-participants. Results show that both scarcity
routes exist and increase product choice, while NFU only enhances
quality inferences when scarcity is due to limited supply.
Theoretical implications concern the identification of two
scarcity routes. While previous scarcity studies have mostly fo-
cused on limited supply, we show that excess demand and limited
supply promote distinct inference processes. Although both routes
lead to increased product choice, the process and moderating
variables are different. Practical implications of our study concern
sales forecasting, inventory management and the influencing of
product preference. The accelerating effect of empty shelf space
implies that stock-outs may occur sooner than one expects. Using
empty shelf space as an efficient management tool would only be
feasible in stores that sell a relatively small amount of products.
Especially in combination with a sales pitch, scarcity can increase
sales here. The insight that our study provides into the response of
consumers to demand versus supply reasons for scarcity has impor-
tant implications for such a sales pitch. In one case, emphasizing
product uniqueness can be advantageous while in the other case it
may be detrimental.
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