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Should Retailers Reconsider Online Flash Sales?

May 19, 2023
New research from Kelly Goldsmith offers insight into the effectiveness of flash sales for online retailers

By Olivia Robertson

In Examining the Efficacy of Time Scarcity Marketing Promotions in Online Retail, Kelly Goldsmith, Vanderbilt University, Jillian Hmurovic, Drexel University, and Cait Lamberton, University of Pennsylvania, discuss the effectiveness of online marketing promotions that highlight time sensitivity, sometimes known as flash sales. They pose the question of whether consumers’ positive responses to these in-person sales will be reflected in the world of online consumption. 

Kelly Goldsmith

The authors find that the inclusion of time scarcity within marketing promotions in online retail had less of an impact on consumer behavior and purchase intentions than with in-person shopping. Consumers are more likely to engage with in-person flash sales, as they are influenced by the sense of urgency and the cost of delay. However, some elements could increase the effectiveness of these promotions on online shoppers by including justifications for the time scarcity, such as birthdays or seasonal changes.

“For many online shoppers, flash sales and limited-time offers trigger skepticism – is it really not going to be around later?” Goldsmith says. “It’s amazing. Our research shows that even simple justifications like – ‘Special offer – today only! It’s the last day of Spring’ can help tamp down consumers’ suspicions and increase uptake on the deal.”

Additionally, the authors note that retailers should cautiously approach the frequency of time-sensitive promotions. If these promotions are used too often, consumers may become desensitized to them, decreasing their positive consumer effect. The authors provide recommendations for online retailers to effectively use promotions centered around time sensitivity and avoid consumer desensitization:

  • Use time scarcity promotions sparingly and strategically.
  • Ensure the promotions are easily visible on websites and marketing materials.
  • Highlight the benefits of the promotion, such as discounts or limited-edition products.
  • Personalize promotions to build a sense of exclusivity.
  • Remain authentic, as consumers are more likely to respond to promotions they believe to be credible.
  • Use customer testimonials and reviews to strengthen the effectiveness of time sensitivity and authenticity.

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