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Black Friday: the dark side of scarcity promotions

Each year, reports of violent incidents between consumers during shopping-crazed holidays (e.g. Black Friday) emerge. These incidents involve individuals physically and verbally assaulting, robbing, and even shooting fellow consumers. While others have shown individuals will resort to aggression and violence when survival resources are in short supply, violence also emerges while attempting to acquire luxury products in resource-rich consumer environments. Very little is currently known about the drivers of such acts.

Does simply encountering a scarcity promotion, such as a newspaper or television advertisement or online pop-up ad, cultivate seeds of aggressive behavior in consumers and predispose them to act in a violent manner? Is marketplace aggression not merely the outcome of crowds during shopping holidays, but activated beforehand at ad exposure?

A scarcity promotion is a marketing tactic that emphasizes limited availability (either in quantity or time) of a specific product or event. Firms utilize scarcity promotional tactics throughout the year, but their most salient usage is high-profile, shopping-oriented events in which large discounts are offered on highly desirable items, but available quantity is often limited, as is the time to access the promotion (only that day or week).

To test this, a series of 7 laboratory experiments with a total of 1,173 participants was conducted. Participants were exposed to a promotional ad for a highly desirable product.

The promotion varied, however, such that the available quantity was either very low (scarcity), very high (control), or made no mention of product quantity. Shortly after ad exposure, participants moved on to a purportedly different study: one in which they had the opportunity to behave aggressively (e.g., playing violent video games, encountering a jammed vending machine, or selecting between violent/non-violent experiences).

The results showed exposure to scarcity promotions that limit product quantity led to increased aggressive behavior, and this was because consumers perceive other shoppers as a potential competitive threat to obtaining the desired product. Further, scarcity promotion exposure has a physiological effect on consumers. Specifically, exposure to the limited-quantity ad increases testosterone levels, which may facilitate aggression when an opportunity becomes available. Although aggression and competition are related, scarcity promotions heightened the likelihood that consumers will engage in aggressive, competitive actions like shooting, hitting, and kicking, but it did not increase non-aggressive, competitive actions like working or thinking harder.

In some conditions, however, aggressive behavior does not result from exposure to scarcity promotions. Cues that directly minimize consumers viewing other shoppers as competitive threats attenuate the aggressive responses to scarcity. For example, exposure to a scarcity promotion led to increased aggression when the promotion limited quantity (e.g., Only 5 Available), but not when it limited time (e.g., One Day Only). This is because promotions that limit product quantity inherently pit consumers against each other and heighten the competitive threat others pose to securing the desired good. Put another way, when product quantity is limited, consumers will miss out if they do not get to the product before other consumers.

Conversely, in promotions that limit time, all consumers who want to secure the promotional product will do so as long as they arrive within the allotted time, making the perceived competitive threat other consumers pose in inhibiting product acquisition minimal (i.e., consumers only compete against the clock and not each other).

In sum, when the doors open on Black Friday and the consumers rush in, racing towards the few discounted items, the aggression that ensues may have originated long before they entered the store, perhaps as soon as they saw the first Black Friday ad.

Featured image credit: Black Friday by Powhusku. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.  

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