"OMG Medium has sold out! I can't believe it! In just a few minutes!" posted Kim Kardashian on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. The reality star-turned-business mogul had released her first product, a contour kit, from her new makeup line KKW Beauty at exactly noon EST that day. In less than 15 minutes, all stock of the “Medium” shade contour kit was snapped up by shoppers — just as Kardashian predicted. About two-and-half hours later, the entire line was sold out.
That same day, I was going through my own sense of shopping urgency, induced by Berlin-based 032c. The biannual fashion, art and culture publication and brand announced a collaboration with Stüssy — a long-sleeve T-shirt — on Monday via social media. "Send 'subscribe' to email@example.com to get our newsletter for more information," said the Instagram caption, which I immediately followed. On Wednesday morning at exactly 10:11 a.m. EST, I received 032c's newsletter with the subject line, "STÜSSY x 032c DROPS NOW." By the end of the work day, the shirt was entirely sold out. I missed my chance.
Kardashian and 032c are both recent examples of a "drop," and as you read this, resellers, online bots and hypebeasts are likely hard at work trying to purchase the latest drop from Supreme. It's a tried-and-true retail strategy among sneaker and streetwear brands, but other fashion and beauty brands have started to take notice and pick up the method for their own businesses. Alexander Wang, for example, released his Adidas collaboration in a total of three drops, while Kendall and Kylie Jenner launched "Drop Two" of their Kendall + Kylie line recently.
Both Kylie and Kim unveil their merch-inspired products in drops as well, and the outcome is almost always a quick sell-out. Not only are the two reality stars highly followed by the masses, thus inspiring a huge and inevitable demand for anything that they endorse, but drops also tend to be announced on short notice (usually online) — Kim announced the launch of her beauty line only a week in advance — and inventory is limited. Get it while it's hot, sheeple, or rather, while it's still in stock.
So what makes us want to shop a drop so much? Why do these releases drive us to instantly reach for our credit card information, almost like a reflex? According to experts who study consumer behavior and marketing, it all comes down to the scarcity principle. "[A drop] doesn't conform to traditional fashion release timing, so it's unpredictable and, therefore, the products seem scarce," NYU Stern School of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Adam Alter tells Fashionista. "Scarcity makes them desirable because they aren't available to just anyone — they're only available to people who happen to be tuned in to the product's release."
Scarcity is a key form of persuasion, as heavily studied by Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion." He uses a proven example from British Airways, which announced in 2003 the discontinuation of its twice-daily Concorde flights between London and New York. The following day, sales skyrocketed. "Notice that nothing had changed about the Concorde itself," says Cialdini in his "Principles of Persuasion" video. "It certainly didn't fly any faster, the service didn't suddenly get better and the airfare didn't drop. It had simply become a scarce resource. And as a result, people wanted it more."
We've seen scarcity utilized in many forms in the retail space aside from drops: flash sales, designer collaborations (with mass retailers like H&M, Target and Uniqlo), limited product releases for frequent or loyal shoppers and pop-up shops, which have been, er, popping up with increasing frequency around the world, especially for music merch. Outside of retail, flash mobs, raves and secret concerts are examples of scarcity inspiring impulsive interest.
However, the allure of drops goes beyond the idea of wanting more of what's rare. According to Barbara Kahn, a Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, there's a signaling of value as well. "If you have something that other people can't get or work to get, it signals a certain status," she tells Fashionista. "The status it's signaling here is different than in luxury. Usually the reason people buy luxury is for higher quality. I don't think that's what's driving it here."
Kahn also brings up the idea of FOMO via social media, which she's currently doing research on. Though drops usually occur online, there are brick-and-mortar stores (and pop-up shops) that attract long lines of shoppers hoping to get their hands on the physical product as soon as it's available. (See Supreme in Soho on a Thursday, as well as previous Kanye West "Pablo" and Kylie merch pop-ups.) Recently, e-commerce company Shopify, which hosts numerous drops for a variety of brands, including Kylie Jenner, launched the mobile app Frenzy, which hosts "dropzones" or, essentially, physical locations where you go to shop a drop on your phone while surrounded by others doing the same. These experiences are often documented on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and/or Facebook, so it makes sense that FOMO would occur among those who aren't present.
"The fleeting notion of this is only a particular point of time and point in place, and that it's documented on social media, both in the announcement and the people that get involved, that is adding a new dimension to this whole thing that I think is very strong," says Kahn. "It's not about the product per se, it's really about the hype being magnified by social media."
Now that we know why drops are so appealing on a psychological level, who exactly is the best audience for them? The experts we spoke to all pointed towards Generation Z. "The non-conformist nature of the drop also appeals to younger consumers, who treat non-conformism as a virtue. The last thing they want is to buy or think or look like everyone else," says Alter.
"On a very practical level, they have time, whereas the over-30 crowd tends to focus more on convenience," says Amna Kirmani, Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, of Gen Z. "The type of customer who responds to drops are those who desire to be an influencer among their circle of friends, particularly on social media. It gives them some credibility. The other type of customer who would go for this are those who want to resell at a much higher price."
But do drops have longevity in the fashion and retail market? Our experts say the chances are slim. "By definition, the strategy is limited," says Alter. "You can't capitalize on surprise and rarity forever if you want to be profitable — and the strategy itself might lose some of its gloss as consumers become jaded." Farla Efros, President of HRC Retail Advisory, thinks drops are just another form of the old Wal-Mart term "retailtainment."
"There's been very little innovation if you think about the marketplace today and very little excitement going on in retail," she says. "A drop is another version of creating real excitement and the need for instant gratification. Everyone will jump on the bandwagon, people will catch on and this will phase out."
Of course, we don't see drop culture going away anytime soon for the brands who have practiced it for so long, but we'll likely see it take on new and different forms in the future. It's just a matter of whether that will actually prove successful among consumers. "I think the next strategy of drops has legs," says Kahn. "But it's really hard to come up with the cool, new thing for people to embrace. That's a hard game to predict."