We’ve just come through the holiday season and retail sales were up about 8% from a year ago according to MasterCard. It’s probably not a stretch for me to assume that all of you reading this took part in holiday shopping if for no other reason than to take advantage of the great sales that were so prevalent.
There is something about a sale that grabs our attention and there are two primary reasons we love to take advantage of the opportunities retailers present. Contrary to what you might think, it’s more than just saving a little cash.
First, we hate the thought of losing. That’s the principle of scarcity at work on us. We’ve become so conditioned by sales that we know when we don’t buy something on sale we’ve most likely overpaid; i.e., lost money. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s research shows people feel the pain of loss more than they do the joy of gain. In fact, most people experience the pain of loss anywhere from 2.0-2.5 times more than the joy of gaining the same thing. In other words, as much as we like saving $100 we hate the thought of losing $100 much more. Again, not taking advantage of a sale equates to losing.
However, as much as we like a sale we do know there are plenty throughout the year so what’s a retailer to do to get us to take action immediately? When you throw in some kind of limit our desire for the sale item is greatly heightened. Think about it; if there were not a time limit (“Sale ends Sunday”) or limited supplies (“While supplies last”) we wouldn’t be as quick to take advantage of the bargains. After all, it’s also quite natural for many people to procrastinate.
But why is scarcity such a motivator?
According to Robert Cialdini’s best selling book Influence Science and Practice, it has to do with how we’re wired, i.e., our evolution as a species.
“One prominent theory accounts for the primacy of loss over gain in evolutionary terms. If one has enough to survive, an increase in resources will be helpful but a decrease in those same resources could be fatal. Consequently, it would be adaptive to be especially sensitive to the possibility of loss.” (Haselton & Nettle, 2006)
While some things may be changing rapidly (human knowledge is doubling every 12 months), human beings evolve slowly, very slowly. Most people probably don’t live in life and death situations like humans did thousands of years ago but our brain wiring is essentially the same. So that wiring that was designed to help us survive still exists today, only it’s tapped into in many ways that are not related to survival.
How does this impact you? In two primary ways:
If you’re a consumer make sure you don’t reflexively act on things. While the sale may look too good to pass up do you really think it’s the best sale there has ever been? Do you think it will never come back around again? The answer is most likely no in both cases. So take your time on major purchases and don’t be so quick to jump just because you see something is 30% or 40% off. It’s very likely there will be President’s Day, Memorial Weekend, Fourth of July, and Labor Day sales that are every bit as good if you can be patient.
When you’re a persuader look for legitimate scarcity in your product, service or offer. There may not be one thing that is totally unique but perhaps there is some combination of features or benefits that can’t be gotten elsewhere. Tout the combination to alert people to the uniqueness. And if there happens to be a limit on time or quantity make sure you mention it because it will increase the odds that someone will say yes to you.
In order to be a master when it comes to persuasion always look for the principles of influence that are naturally available. Then use those principles of honesty highlight what you’re talking about. Doing so will significantly increase your odds of getting to yes.