The Psychology Behind How Urgency Drives Sales

Picture this: you’re waiting in line at a store to get to the register. In front of you, there’s a stand with mini cubbies and shelves filled with cheap, pocket-sized items…and your eye catches a tiny container of fancy hand cream. The line starts moving faster and your heart races – “do I buy it or not? Do I really want to wait in line again or come all the way back to this store? I should just do it now.” So you throw it in your cart, and the store has successfully roped you into spending an extra $6. “Near the register items” are no accident; they inspire impulse buys by creating urgency. When you’re waiting in line, you have a limited amount of time to decide whether or not you want to buy a new item, so you grab it because it seems better than missing out. By using psychology, you can create this same sense of “time is ticking” to make more sales. Here are a few tips on how to increase sales by creating a sense of urgency. 

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Pic via Instagram (and yes, this item is indeed sold out).

What gets your heart rate going faster: “who wants a cookie?” or “who wants THE LAST cookie?” Selling a product that’s either quantity- or time-limited stirs up “now or never” urgency, while also increasing the item’s value by giving it an exclusivity factor. Only a limited few will get this product, and missing out on that creates serious FOMO.

There are a few ways you can create urgency with scarcity:

  • Limited time designs: offering new designs that you’ll take down after a few days or weeks.
  • Limited versions of a design: Doing variations of a current design you have in your shop and limiting those variations to make them an exclusive variant.
  • Limited quantities of a product: While you can’t really say “Only four left!” in Artist Shops because our stock is unlimited, you can say, “Only four more!” if you plan on taking the design down and retiring it after you’ve sold four more items. Even just saying “LIMITED QUANTITIES!” in the product description as well as on social media achieves the same idea.

Blogger and influencer Girrlscout does a fantastic job achieving urgency through scarcity. Besides offering limited time items that she retires once they’re gone, she also brings back favorites in limited quantities, teasing upcoming restocks with lifestyle photos and encouraging people to signup for her newsletter to find out EXACTLY when these restocks happen, which also promotes exclusivity.

Announcing restocks (via Instagram).

Retiring items then bringing them back is a great way of getting people to sign up for emails from you as well! Tell people to follow your Artist Shop for updates, or encourage them to DM their email to you so they can receive exclusive emails! And of course, email your past customers with updates as well. 

Countdown Clocks

Time and Date’s countdown clocks have some great background designs, plus they’re customizable and shareable.

This is the visual equivalent of the checkout counter impulse buy scenario. When you can see visual proof that you’re running out of time to purchase a product, the pressure is immediately heightened. This takes away the “I’ll buy it later” effect because there isn’t as much time to put off.

Cotton Bureau does an amazing job of this, featuring a countdown clock next to each design that shows exactly how much time there is left to purchase it, which increases the urgency to act NOW or miss out.

A great example of Cotton Bureau’s countdown clock.

This technique works so well, in fact, that in a Conversionxl blog post, Marcus Taylor writes about how he tried two versions of his landing page: one with a little note about how much time was left and how many times a product had been purchased, and another version that didn’t. The landing page that showed the amount of time remaining/how many were bought had almost 3X the conversion rate.

Cotton Bureau’s homepage featuring – as in the aforementioned study – how many have sold and how much time is left.

You can do a countdown clock for just one design to up the stakes if it’s a limited time product, or you can create a countdown clock for a sale, discount, or free shipping. Try using a countdown clock for your emails with the motion mail app. And for social media, you can also fake it with a GIF of a countdown clock: just animate the ‘seconds’ part of the time up to 10 seconds (but make sure it has the right amount of “days left” on the day you’re posting it). Consider adding the deadline date for limited products and designs to the product’s title!


Having a consistent, stagnant sale all holiday season long isn’t going to create much urgency. In fact, it’s going to make it safer for people to look at your items and procrastinate – after all, what are the stakes? 24 hour, two-day, or flash sales, on the other hand, create urgency because they’re limited. It’s better to do a few of these throughout the pre-holiday season (on ideal dates) than it is to just do one continuous “it’s all on sale for the holidays” promo.

This is why it’s important to plan your sales ahead of time; let people know when your sales are ending so that they’re aware of the deadline and be sure to limit the time between the start of a sale and that deadline! That’s the whole idea behind Black Friday and Cyber Monday, after all – to drop prices for one day only to encourage sales. 

Selling a Lifestyle: The “if you buy X, then you will be X” Effect

Via NDTank’s Instagram.

Creating a need for a product can be tough when you’re selling fun things like tees, home decor, and accessories. After all, who hasn’t at some point used the phrase, “I don’t need any more tees” because of an overflowing wardrobe? So how do you create a need for your product? One way of doing it is with really solid lifestyle photography. With lifestyle photos, you show customers how your products and designs will create positive change in their life by showing off the lifestyle they’re buying into. In NDTank’s case (above), while his products won’t immediately transport the buyer to the mountains, the photos on his Instagram all say, “if you buy my products and designs, then you will feel like you’re living the life of a true outdoorsman/woman.”

Via Shhhowercap’s Instagram.

Another example is Shhhowercap. No one needs a luxury shower cap, but they created that need by maximizing the item’s visual appeal (and then backing it with a solid product). Their photos sell a story that says, “if you buy a Shhhowercap, then you will live the luxury life, look as amazing as these models, and feel like you’re at a high-end spa every day.” They also feature images of women wearing their Shhhowercap as an everyday fashion accessory; something you would never think (or want) to do with the classic Shhhowercap. And on their Instagram, they have a ton of pictures that don’t even feature the product but do enforce the vibe and lifestyle they’re selling.

Kissmetrics words this as, “Give visitors a glimpse of the results they will receive after using your products”, and utilizing lifestyle photos on your homepage collection, in your social media posts, and in lookbooks is the perfect way of doing this.

Words Matter

As simple as it sounds, choosing the right words in your email subject lines, social media posts, FB ads, and Call to Action (CTA) buttons is a super effective way of putting the time limit pressure on. Phrases like “Last Chance!” or “24 Hours Only!” in email subject lines get a foot in the curiosity door for your newsletter list (not to mention, this is another great reason to send your customers email updates!), and including that urgent messaging in your social media posts and Facebook ads clearly communicates to and reminds people that they need to act now.

Here are a few examples of urgent wording we use in email subject lines here at Threadless when announcing sales or deals starting and ending:

  • Don’t miss out on free shipping!
  • One day only!
  • 24 hours only!
  • Time is running out!
  • Get X before it’s gone!
  • Final hours!

As far as CTAs – like buttons you include in your emails that link to your shop – Campaign Monitor has a great phrase to keep in mind: “Pair an active and urgent word.” Think “Download NOW”, “Learn More Today”, etc.

Use the Right Colors

Have you noticed that when many companies have a product on sale, they either slash the old price in red or list the NEW price in red? Red is an attention-getting color. Think about it: Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Grammarly all underline typos in red to capture attention. Just like it made you anxious to see your school papers graded in red, seeing a price in red captures our attention, indicates that this is a high-stakes situation, and puts us on full alert. In an NPR interview, Professor Abraham Rutchick of California State University, Northridge did a study exploring the intense effects of the color red and found that “[red pens] are a source of influence that we’re usually unaware of. They certainly activate these ideas of failure and wrongness and correction…in my opinion, it is mostly due to the association that’s built up over time.”

When possible, highlight new prices, deals, and urgent messaging in red text!

Include a Benefit if People “ACT NOW!” 

What’s even better than avoiding FOMO by buying that limited time design RIGHT NOW? If you sweeten the deal with an extra perk. Glossier does a great job of this to snag new customers (including myself, recently). Their already compelling ads on Instagram are enough to peak interest on a product…but then, if you buy something directly from clicking on that ad you get 10% off of your product. This increases urgency by providing a sense that you got a sweet deal and if you click out of the window, you’ll miss it. It takes away the “I’ll buy it later” effect by making the deal a “now or never” situation.

How can you do this? Free shipping is a great foot-in-the-door perk to offer. And the free shipping your customers get through December 15th is a great thing to offer as a perk when someone acts now for their holiday shopping rather than later.

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Featured illustration by Katie Lukes

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