Scarcity and Consumer Panic

I didn’t bother preordering the World of Warcraft expansion, figuring that there’s going to be a zillion of the things around today. So this morning I stop by the store to pick one up. There’s a couple of guys picking up their preorders, then I say, “Hey, I’d like to get the expansion as well”.

The clerk looks at me like I just dripped pus all over his carpet.

“Are you a walk-in?”, he asks, oozing with contempt.

“Yeah. So do you have one?”

He looks back at about 150 copies stacked behind him. He makes a big show out of picking up a folder and looking through it, humming and hawing. He fidgets. He scratches his head. He shows the folder to the woman working with him.

“We just barely have one.” Like I give a shit whether it’s the last one or he’s got another fifty extra. If he doesn’t have it, someone else will, or I’ll wait a few days. Outland isn’t going to burn down if I don’t get levelling tonight. Though I suppose the servers might, which is another reason not to over-exert myself getting a hold of the thing.

The clerk makes a big show out of reluctantly shuffling over to get one, as if another twenty people might materialize any second and threaten him for selling it to me.

“You’re really lucky we have this. Next time you should pre-order.” It’s clear I’m being scolded for morally sketchy behavior. I’m close to just walking away.


The manipulation of scarcity has long been a way to create what Baudrillard called “sign value”, a kind of cultural engine generating surplus desire. It isn’t just Playstations and computer games. Elite colleges and universities do it, too. About twenty years ago, they discovered that having a lower price for the same quality of service that other institutions offered didn’t help you get students. In fact, quite the reverse: raising your tuition without altering your services helped bring you more applicants and a better quality of applicant.

Manipulating scarcity is a dangerous game, however. It draws a kind of moral backlash if the commodity being offered is judged to be unworthy of the desire that scarcity creates, or if the manipulation is too odiously apparent. The Playstation 3 got hit this holiday season because its scarcity was very obviously not a consequence of consumer panic, but instead of manufacturing incapacity. Those who did get a hold of one didn’t generate the buzz you need to sustain the mystique of desire. The Wii, on the other hand, was available in much greater quantities and still couldn’t be had for love or money, because people genuinely and obviously wanted it. It’s even worse with the PSP versus the DS: Sony had to resort to creating fake consumer blogs proclaiming hungry desire for a PSP.

I also really wonder if manipulated scarcity ultimately resorts in a larger profit than steadily supplying a market over a longer term. Consumer panic means you sell all of your stock in a short time span (usually near the holidays) but my sense is that the oscillation from peak demand to lax demand is far more intense, especially if the commodity disappoints or has a short and faddish shelf-life. On the other hand, maybe there isn’t a long-term strategy for selling pet rocks or their equivalent: if you hit your fifteen minutes of consumer fame, cash in as much as you can, but don’t overproduce and get stuck with a warehouse full of stuff that won’t be worth anything until you can sell it on eBay thirty years later.

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2 Responses to Scarcity and Consumer Panic

  1. I think manipulated scarcity is deemed necessary at a product launch because it creates mounds of “free media.” The scarcity itself, even the anticipation of the scarcity, is covered in the news, blogs, etc. You barely have to run traditional advertising to create incredible awareness of your new product, which normally costs a bundle to achieve.

    After the launch, I think that steadily supplying the consumer demand is probably the way to go. I don’t think it will ever be hard to get a Wii from Nintendo again, and they’ll sell bazillions.

    Incidentally, we were able to get a Wii on its launch day. I didn’t pre-order, I didn’t wait in a long line, I didn’t comb craig’s list or ebay. I just shopped at an unlikely outlet– JCPenney, which took my order after all of two minutes of effort. A week or two later, a box landed at our door.

    And it is all of that and a bag of chips. People have fun when they’re playing it. And it’s much more effective as a social experience than I any previous gaming platform that I’ve ever seen before, all for a “little” change in the paradigm for I/O. Now if we can revolutionize computer inputs.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, the Wii is a mighty fascinating thing in its own right, and you’re exactly right that it shows just how a very very very small change in I/O, or in interface design, can be paradigm-shattering. All it takes is somebody taking a step back and asking, “Hm. Why do we do it this way and not that way?” Apple, much as I’m down on them for the stupidity of their DRM and for the flimsiness of the iPod, has a lot of genius for this kind of rethinking of interface.

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