_The Limits of Limited-Time Sales

Online retailers may not capitalize on a traditional marketing tactic that drove generations of shoppers to stores.

_Jillian Hmurovic

Hmurovic is an assistant professor of marketing in the Bennett S. LeBow College of Business.

We’ve all seen brands and companies offer discounts for a limited time only. Are they so commonplace that we tune them out, and does it make a difference whether they’re on a sign in a storefront or in an email in your inbox?

Assistant Professor of Marketing Jillian Hmurovic explored these questions in “Examining the Efficacy of Time Scarcity Marketing Promotions in Online Retail,” a study she co-authored with Cait Lamberton of the University of Pennsylvania and Kelly Goldsmith of Vanderbilt University, which appeared in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2023.

Much of the previous research on the topic had been conducted offline and before the internet made countdown timers ubiquitous.


Researchers believe consumers have become more knowledgeable about urgency sales tactics as online retailing has grown. “There’s a point at which you become more skeptical of the deal, and you’re less likely and less willing to purchase,” says Hmurovic.

“I know past research says this tactic should work, but I was having a very negative reaction to it because the timeframe seemed so arbitrary, and that sparked questions of how time scarcity promotions work online and how the traditional effects may change given how these promotions are currently implemented online,” Hmurovic says.

Hmurovic and her colleagues compared the effects of online and offline marketing techniques and found that offline marketing tactics do not necessarily translate to online contexts.

Their experiments they concluded that time-scarcity promotions tended to perform better when the reason for an offer’s timeframe is outside the retailer’s control, such as a certain holiday or the consumer’s birthday.

The researchers also found that online promotions that are closer to expiring perform better than those that offer consumers a longer time horizon.