Being a human takes a lot of psychological effort, particularly today, when many of us are constantly connected through our phones and social media. We make thousands of decisions every day, which all take different levels of mental energy. Big ones, like whether to change jobs, take a lot of energy and could capture your conscious focus for some time. Smaller ones, like which socks to wear, take less effort, and if asked later you may not even consciously remember making the choice. Even so, all these choices combine to create an immense mental load, and focusing on all of them would reduce our attention and energy for other matters during the day. So instead, we develop habits and routines to streamline as many of these decisions as possible.
Think about your own life. Where do you buy your groceries? Is it mostly at the same store? Perhaps it’s at two, if you have another near work. When you’re there, how often do you change the brand of milk you buy? I’m betting not very often. Going back to the same supermarket and buying the same brand of milk means your brain doesn’t have to make those decisions again. It’s simple, efficient, and reduces your mental load.
Yet doing things the same way all the time can get boring – monotonous even. So, you might find yourself occasionally branching out, trying that new brand of oat milk on a whim, testing out the new burger place down the road. That deviation from routine is called ‘variety seeking’ and researchers have been studying it for many decades. It is an interesting behaviour. On one level, variety seeking presents a risk and sticking with what you know is much more efficient. Yet there is something intriguing and even exciting about variety seeking, particularly when you find something you enjoy. For a second you feel like an explorer discovering something for the first time.
Strategies like Aldi’s Special Buys play on this variety seeking behaviour. By regularly switching the products that are featured, the retailer is partly trying to encourage consumers to branch out and try something new. Had your pet’s bed for a while? Maybe a new one would be a nice change. Usually barbecue with gas? Maybe it’s time to try a wood smoker. Rotating the offers provides consumers an opportunity for discovery and excitement, which (retailers hope) might ultimately lead to variety seeking behaviour.
The scarcity effect
Variety is not the only benefit to rotating the Special Buys offers. Doing so also creates a scarcity effect. In economics, scarcity is generally described as a lack of a core resource, or a shortage in simple terms. We’ve seen these in getting access to vaccines. There is a limited supply, which makes it hard for any country to get enough doses. They are scarce.
Scarcity doesn’t apply only to natural resources or commodities. It can describe any situation where a consumer may not be able to satisfy their needs, or even just their wants. Products being out of stock in a supermarket is a classic example. The consumer has a need for a particular product but that need cannot be met due to a lack of supply.
Scarcity is a powerful motivator for consumer behaviour. In fact, a recent academic study1 highlighted the ways scarcity affects consumers throughout their entire purchase journey; from the way we search for information and evaluate alternatives, to how we make a purchase and even how we use a product or service. For instance, it can make consumers focus more intently on a purchase, be more likely to choose popular items, or defer a choice entirely. It can even lead to risky behaviour. In fact, a neurological study2 showed that a scarcity mindset is such a powerful mental force it alters neural mechanisms – how your brain is working. Think back to panic buying of toilet paper at early stages of the pandemic, and you’ll see how powerful scarcity can be.
The important thing about scarcity is that it doesn’t have to be real, just perceiving the risk of scarcity is enough to motivate consumer behaviour. This is where Special Buys start to heavily influence consumers. It is never clear how many of a particular product there are. You may see five barbecues in the aisle, but does that mean there are only five available? Could there be more out back? You don’t know. Then someone else comes in and takes one, now there are four. How long until there are none? Even if there are plenty, if you don’t buy it this time will it ever be stocked again? Could you miss out entirely? If you’re feeling even slightly stressed thinking about this example, that is the scarcity effect at work, and it leads to the final appeal of Special Buys, which I’ll touch on next.
You may think of FOMO (fear of missing out) as something you’re more likely to see as a comment on a Facebook post from the early 2000s than in an academic journal. In which case, you may be surprised to know that a Google Scholar (Google’s tool for searching academic outputs) search for ‘FOMO’ returns 21,500 results. Which is to say that FOMO may have started out as a hashtag, but it is now a scientifically verified and researched phenomenon. For instance, a recent paper3 synthesised more than 20 studies that had shown how FOMO affects consumer behaviour. They also showed how brands can appeal to a consumer’s sense of FOMO and increase purchase intentions through feelings of elation, self-enhancement, and anticipated regret.
FOMO is closely related to scarcity, in that scarcity creates the potential for missing out. Yet there is also a social element to FOMO, particularly with Special Buys. Picture this: It’s post-Covid, you walk into Aldi and see a new barbecue with a smoker, pizza oven – the whole works. You think about how nice it would be to host your friends you haven’t been able to see in a long time, but ultimately decide not to buy it. Later that day, your group chat gets bombarded with photos of one of your friends (let’s call them Jo) using that same barbecue and showing off all it’s features. Your other friends (Heather and Ruth) are amazed and you’re all now invited over to Jo’s place for a cook-up. You run back to Aldi but the barbecues are all gone (Scarcity strikes again!). How do you feel?
You might be mostly excited to have a great barbecue with friends. Yet there is something else there. A feeling that now you really wish you had got the barbecue after all. That’s not a nice feeling, and one we try to avoid. So, where scarcity is about not being able to get something, you need (or really want), FOMO is about missing out on something that others have. Both are powerful, as is variety seeking, and all three together help explain why Special Buys are so appealing – and why I suddenly now really want to go and buy a barbecue with a pizza oven.
1 “The effects of scarcity on consumer decision journeys” by Rebecca Hamilton and colleagues in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science
2 “A scarcity mindset alters neural processing underlying consumer decision-making” by Inge Huijmans and colleagues in PNAS3 “Direct and indirect effects of fear-of-missing-out appeals on purchase likelihood” by Megan Good and Michael Hyman in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour