Christmas’ hottest toy is just one giant mind game
This Christmas, no word is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of parents like Hatchimal. This love child of a Tamagotchi and a Furby is the season’s hottest gift and also appears to be simultaneously in-demand and extinct. The $60 toy is impossible to find at stores, driving crazed parents to pay $200 or more on eBay or Craigslist.
So why can’t the manufacturer just make more?
Clearly, manufacturer Spin Master is aptly named: to sell Hatchimals, it’s adopted a classic tactic. The fewer products we can find, the more desperate we become to track them down. It’s a trick known as scarcity marketing, artificially creating a threat of shortage to sell more stuff. The firm didn’t disclose initial production runs, but claims to have ramped up in response to the frenzy.
Toy frenzies are as much a holiday season staple as Charlie Brown, tinsel and family fights. From Cabbage Patch dollmania in the 1980s, when parents bribed store managers to be first in line, to the robotic hamsters known as Zhu Zhu pets seven years ago.
But drip-feed supply of must-have products isn’t confined to Christmas, according to Bridget Brennan, author of Why She Buys. “Scarcity and limited editions have been a constant fixture in marketing for years and they still hold high appeal. We see this regularly when brands or retailers like Target or H&M launch limited designer collaborations.”
Call it FOMOM — fear of missing out at the mall. Think of Apple’s endless lines on the day a new iPhone is introduced. Or consider buzzy new accessories brand Mansur Gavriel, which built its entire profile via the near-impossibility of obtaining the bags, modeling the business after Hermès’ Birkin. It isn’t just luxuries that are hyped via scarcity — both the pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks and the Shamrock shake at McDonalds are term-limited treats.
And why did Snap Inc’s new Spectacles succeed where rival Google glass bellyflopped? “They decided to make them incredibly hard to get — only through branded vending machines placed in hard to reach locales, like the base of the Grand Canyon,” explains Deacon Webster, co-founder of N.Y.-based ad agency Walrus. “Suddenly, everybody had to have them because scarcity changed the narrative from ‘Hey, what’s on your face?’ to ‘Whoah, where did you get those?’”
We’re hardwired to respond to this trick, thanks to a phenomenon economists call scarcity bias; think of it like surge pricing for the brain. The stress of limited quantities makes us value something more. In one supermarket-based experiment, shoppers bought more than twice as many cans of Campbells soup on sale when an extra sign was added with the proviso ‘Limit: 12 per person’. It’s retail’s version of playing hard to get.
So how do we short-circuit such pre-programming? We’re less vulnerable than in the Cabbage Patch-era, thanks to the Internet. We can look overseas, for example, and order online — perhaps that artificial frenzy is only in force stateside, after all. Remember, too, such sense of urgency is entirely artificial. “Step back and judge the product on its merits,” advertising executive Webster suggests, “Do you really want this thing? If everybody had one, would it change your opinion of it?” If an item were as common as a can of Coke, would you still crave buying it? The simplest response, though, is waiting: frenzies always ebb as lure of profit forces firms to ramp up production — as supply begins to outstrip demand, the price will drop.
Of course, waiting until after Christmas to buy a Hatchimal is impractical — unless you follow one mom’s resourceful lead. Unable to find a toy for her 6-year old daughter, Michigan-based Amber Gordon penned an apology letter on official Santa letterhead. Egg delivery is expected it January, it reads, at which point an elf will personally deliver a brand new Hatchimal — one that Gordon will be able to buy at or even below recommended retail price.
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