eCommerce opens up retail to a myriad of new sales and marketing opportunities - not least the interplay between bricks and mortar, pop ups, social media and the online world. As shopping habits become more interconnected, there's the chance to harness hype in a truly multichannel capacity.

Amongst the most effective strategies are those which play off “fomo” – modern, heightened retellings of yesterday's “limited time offers” – coming in form of flash sales and product drops. Today’s article will explore the appeal, as well as the paradox, of these strategies.

Drop ‘Til They Shop

To start with, let’s define each tactic; they’re closely related, but have their own distinct qualities. A flash sale will typically be an online affair; word is spread with limited warning, and the deal, or deals, are structured in such a way that the customer doesn’t need to think twice about the value on offer. With limited stock up for grabs, people are encouraged to act quickly and impulsively. Of course, the whole internet loves a bargain, and many sites and social media accounts exist with the sole purpose of publicising these kind of “blink and you’ll miss them” deals, meaning that they can be a smart way of driving first time customers to your site, as well as appealing to your more loyal fans.

Product drops tend to have more of a fanfare in terms of marketing lead up; the impetus for these sales is not necessarily to bag a bargain, but to be amongst the first to have a rare, ultra limited or new item. While drops can happen online, they’re often IRL affairs, with brands either collaborating with established bricks and mortar chains, or establishing a temporary pop up. The spectacle of the event itself feeds the hype machine; social sharing of the experience fueling the fomo.

The common factor linking both tactics is something which plays on some of our most primal instincts and fears; scarcity. We are impulsively drawn to something which we feel like we may not have access to at a later date, and more likely to give it our undivided attention and consideration than a product which we know we can access freely.

The Flash Pack

The nature and appeal of these sales tactics lends itself to certain demographics and industries; digitally native Millenials and Gen X, shopping for streetwear, fashion, makeup and celebrity collaborations. In order for your flash sale to be effective, you need to be sure that your audience are checking online streams of communication on a regular enough basis that they’ll get the memo. To get that all-important queue forming for your drop, you need decent brand standing and reputation.

There are a handful of brands becoming well known for their ability to harness hype and convert it into crowds of eager shoppers, ready to part with cash. Supreme are probably leading the way in terms of product drops; despite, or perhaps because of, their regularity, they see weekly hordes of brand fans queuing down the street to access fresh product offerings. Whole guides on how to best beat the system exist online, and their social media accounts dedicated to drops alone count well over 100K followers.

Shopify also got in on the product drop hype back in 2017, with their Frenzy app acting to imaginatively disrupt the trend of a physical store or pop up, and ending the ‘discrimination’ against would-be customers who live far away from the capital cities which tend to see these events taking place. Users wishing to unlock a product drop need to move into a geographically defined “drop zone,” but the purchase is made via their mobile device and the product shipped to them. It’s a smart set up; all of the exclusivity, immediacy and demand, whilst widening the customer catchment area and blurring the online/offline divide.

Iconic But Ironic

Product drops and flash sales, which have been shown to create an average 35% lift in transaction rates, are undeniably attractive tactics if your product, industry and target audience align. There’s a paradoxical flipside to both, however. Whilst flash sales can see peaks of massively increased interest, run them too frequently, or start to water down the wow factor of the offers available, and the strategy quickly becomes self-limiting.

Product drops, as noted, play well to Gen Z shoppers who place high importance on individuality and wanting to be early adopters of the latest trends, leading the way amongst their peers. It’s fairly paradoxical then that in order to stand out from the crowd, they end up standing in one, waiting in line with hundreds of other customers, all looking to buy the same thing.

It’s hard to predict what the future evolution of these ‘fomo’ sales tactics will be. What’s unquestionable is that while the psychology of scarcity value remains lodged in our hunter-gatherer brains, we’ll continue to be drawn to these kind of events and offers, so various iterations and evolutions of the form are bound to be here to stay.