Creating a shortage to sell more

Those of us who are used to Mumbai suburban train travel know that to get a seat in the Virar Fast (Churchgate to Virar fast local) it is not enough to just hop into the train as it pulls into Churchgate station. The smarter commuters actually take an earlier train to a station like Charni Road or Marine Lines, get into the train which will become the ‘Virar Fast’, at Marine Lines, travel to Churchgate, and then smile gleefully when people rush into the compartment in Churchgate and find all the seat were long gone. I call this the Virar Fast phenomenon. I suppose the same will be true of the Kalyan Fast and the Borivli Fast as well. 

This adaptation of human behaviour towards shortages can be observed even in the most esoteric of settings. 

As the next edition of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is just a couple of months away, let me share what I discovered at the festival last year. The festival is one of its kind in the world, has over 350,000 footfalls, over the span of five days. The organisers make great effort to schedule the 200-plus events across the six venues at Diggi Palace (and one outside as well). The most unique feature of the festival is that it is totally free. To keep to the spirit of egalitarianism, there are no seat reservations either. Even the sponsor has to stand, if all seats are taken. The merry band of volunteers go around the venues ensuring no one is “hoarding” seats. At most they allow you to take a toilet break, and if the said person is not back in a few minutes, the seat goes.

There is a big challenge to ensure you get a good seat for a session that is featuring a star speaker. So I noticed the Virar Fast phenomenon finding its way into Zee JLF too. Venues get filled at least one session prior to the “Star Session”. Sometimes even two sessions prior to the said big session. I had spotted this trend a couple of years ago but a Jaipur-based couple, a regular at the event, who I was sitting with told me that even the newbies have figured this out. So the sessions get filled up two sessions ahead of time.

The phenomenon was brought alive to me last year as I was listening to the Canada-based author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD). Next to me was a young man, busy with his mobile phone. I started asking him if he had read any books by CBD. He said he had not heard of her before getting to Jaipur. So why was he sitting in the fifth row? Oh, you see Rishi Kapoor was going to be on next, and my young friend wanted a ring-side seat. Where was he from? He turned out to be a college student from Indore. He had won Hindi poetry awards at inter-college level and had made the pilgrimage to Jaipur to listen to writers like Gulzar and Prasoon Joshi. What was his dream? “Sir, main lekhak banna chatha hoon.” (I want to become an author). 

The PhD thesis research by Shipra Gupta, University of Nebraska, examines the psychological effects of perceived scarcity on consumer buying behaviour. The researcher examined scarcity situations created strategically by retailers. The behaviour of consumers vary based on their knowledge of the scarcity — was it created by the retailer or was it something that was beyond their control. In the fashion industry, the whole concept of fast fashion is driven by the fact that if you like it buy it, because next week it is not going to be there. So in strategically controlled environments, a perception of scarcity encourages quicker decision making by consumers. Online brands have figured this out and as you shop you can see messages flashing temptingly at you: “Only two items left”. “Only two seats to go”. The research also points out a perception of scarcity could trigger other forms of behaviour such as “in-store hoarding” and “in-store hiding”. 

How often have you smiled at confused looking men (and women) walking around with an arm-load of clothes during a sale, only to drop them off randomly, as they decide what they really want to buy?

The Virar Fast phenomenon is indeed caused by an acute shortage of seats. This business of “seat hoarding”, if I may call it that, is not restricted to Mumbai. It can be seen in any location where there is a possibility of “riding the down car up”, to only “ride it down again”. So however erudite you might be, remember this rule when you make your next literary pilgrimage to Jaipur. 

The author is an independent brand strategist, author and founder,

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