Be careful when using scarcity . . . if your product ain’t that scarce.

Scarcity can be one of those most powerful persuasion tactics in sales.  The concept of telling people there are only “limited quantities available” or “only XX performances” is a proven motivating factor to get someone to get out their wallet.

(If you want a great lesson in scarcity, read my favorite book on the subject of sales.)

My favorite new example of an industry utilizing this tactic with awesomeness is our friend-in-perishable-inventory, The Airline Industry.  Have you tried to purchase a plane ticket lately and reached a screen that said, “Only X tickets left at this price!”?  That bit of messaging has gotten me to click, “BUY NOW” a few times as of late.

But I’m getting off topic . . . because I’m going to tell you about what happens when you try to use this powerful weapon, and it ends up backfiring.

I spent about ten days in Vegas recently, mounting The Awesome 80s Prom.  I tend to stay at The Venetian.  I like their big rooms, they like my blackjack record.  And last time I was there, I wandered into CUT, a Wolfgang Puck steak house that serves a great wagyu ribeye.  I mean, yum time.

So this time, I made a point to head back to CUT, and I brought a staffer from the Prom to eat and meet about the rehearsal we just had.

We wandered in at close to 10 PM on a Sunday (not exactly peak time) and asked to be seated.  A nice (but definitely new) hostess asked if we had a reservation.  I looked around at the sea of empty tables in the back and in the front room and said, “No, we don’t.”  She got a bit flustered but said, “Ok, let me just see if I can move some things around.”

And then . . . someone not-so-new-and-not-so-nice stepped up to the podium.  The newbie told the snobbie “I-want-to-be-working-the-door-at-a-nightclub” veteran that we were looking to be seated, and that’s when I heard, “I’m sorry, we have nothing available.”  I scanned again.  Table, table, table . . . table, table, table.  I looked at my watch, looked at the traffic outside the restaurant, and started wondering if there was some Wolfgang Puck Fan Club convention going on that she was expecting to show up in the next fifteen minutes.  I said, “We can sit out here in the front section if that’s ok . . . we just want a table.  Anywhere.”

“I’m sorry, we’re just booked up with so many reservations.  My kitchen schedule won’t allow it.”

Kitchen schedule?  Hmmmm.

I glanced over at the newbie, who looked up at me with a pair of “I-just-want-to-help-people-but-they-won’t-let-me” puppy dog eyes.  See, it was painfully clear that the hostess was giving me the, “You can’t just walk up and get a table at our place – we’re way too in demand” speech.

The problem is . . . and this is the problem with using scarcity in the theater as well . . . I could see all the seats that were available.

I was pretty dang hungry, and I also wanted to test this “kitchen schedule” line, so I asked if we could eat at the bar.  “Sure!  We have a full menu at the bar.”

Kitchen schedule = crap.

That’s ok, we went on to eat, and meet, and they did make a great steak, like I remembered.

But guess what?  90% of the tables I saw went unoccupied.

And unfortunately, when I left, the aftertaste in my mouth wasn’t of that tender ribeye, it was of how I was treated on my way in.

So congrats, CUT.  You used scarcity and held up your reputation as being in-demand.  And while doing so, you turned your back on a repeat customer.   And smarty, snotty hostess girl forgot that I was going to be able to see whether or not you were telling the truth about all those reservations of yours.  I’m going to Vegas again this weekend to check up on the Prom.  And I’ll wander right on by CUT this time, I’m sure.

You can get away with a lot of truth twisting in your marketing if you’re an e-retailer of some sort, selling Viagra, or how-to-make-money-from-foreclosure e-books.  But not in restaurants, and not in the theater.

The best marketing is the truth.  Find what is true about your product or your show, and sell that like crazy.

Use scarcity . . . but only to the degree that it is reality.

Because if you start making things up to get a quick sale, you’ll find that your customers, and not your product, are the things that are scarce.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)



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  • Douglas Hicton says:

    I think you acted inappropriately. It’s not enough to be WONDERING “if there was some Wolfgang Puck Fan Club convention going on that she was expecting to show up in the next fifteen minutes,” you have to actually SAY that out loud and not back down until you get not just an answer, but the answer you want.

    The appropriate thing to do, when there are all those open tables and you’ve caught someone in an obvious lie, is to call them on the lie. Try this next time: “Don’t give me that. Look at all those empty tables. You will seat me NOW.”

    Let us know how it goes.

  • Paul Argentini says:

    Naw! It’s not win or lose, but how you play the game. You’re not a playwright or you’d come up with “make a problem, solve a problem.” To the newbie hostess shaking in her boots, don’t be a bully, say, “Give me a second.” Turn around, take out your cell phone, call CUT and say you’d like to make a reservation. I’ll fix your wagon leaves the taste of greasy wheels.

  • Kim says:

    Way to go!! Love that you used this platform to make that point. I won’t visit CUT either.

  • Phyllis Buchalter says:

    Thinking from the other side, going to a restaurant at 10 PM on a Sunday – the management most likely was running with half staff or less, both on the floor and in the kitchen. If they did not have prior reservations for that date and time, it is cost saving to the restaurant to send good portions of the staff home instead of paying for them hanging around and doing nothing.

  • Randy says:

    Did you Tweet about the experience immediately after it happened? Smart businesses follow such things and you may have gotten a response of some kind to make it right…or maybe not. Worth a try, though.

  • Adam says:

    Ah, but it worked great for them. You didn’t leave, did you? You spent your money anyway, and you gave them free advertising on your blog and Twitter.

  • Debbie Klaar says:

    Hope you share this column with the powers that be at Wolfgang Puck.

  • Katherine says:

    Love the way you write, Ken, and your outlook on Life. “Kitchen schedule = crap” is a touch of genius!

  • Michael says:

    LOVE this story. Please follow up with a nice letter – maybe even a copy of your blog story ! Sounds like someone there needs some lessons from you on how to use scarcity ! PS: I used to stay at the Venetian all the time, but now that I know M. Adelson owns it, I’ll go elsewhere.

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