Absence Makes Buyers' Hearts Grow Fonder for Brands

Playing Hard-to-Get Via Limited-Time Offerings Allows Marketers to Stand out in Sea of Endless Shopping Choices

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- For 15 years, Olive Garden has been luring customers with a creation called the "never-ending pasta bowl," giving diners the chance to gorge on unlimited pasta and new sauces for just $8.95. But the promotion lasts for only a couple of months every fall before the chain yanks it off the market. And when the bowls are gone, fans like Crystal Hupp count the days until they come back.

Mallomars aren't available all year.
Mallomars aren't available all year.
"I love pasta," said Ms. Hupp, 27, of Zanesville, Ohio, who often dines at her neighborhood Olive Garden with her mother. "So whenever their never-ending pasta bowls come back, I always make a point to stop there and take advantage of it."

Limited-time products like this one are as old as the catch of the day. What's new is that marketers from retailers to food makers are relying on them more as they seek to win internet-savvy customers whose shopping choices are boundless.

"The fundamental issue is that there are so many offerings to choose from.

Consumers need some sort of incentive to act," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University, San Francisco.

"Limited-time products stand out against the competition. It creates a sense of urgency ... and because it's scarce, it feels a little bit more special." In other words, marketers are playing hard to get, "and we all know that that works," Ms. Yarrow said.

Retail giant Target got into the game five years ago, offering limited-time designer fashion collections that vanish after a few weeks -- only to be replaced by a new lineup. "It helps generate a lot of buzz," said Target spokesman Joshua Thomas. "That tight window really drives purchase urgency. It's about that get-it-before-it's gone purchase mentality."

PepsiCo lures buyers with retro packaging.
PepsiCo lures buyers with retro packaging.

At first Target staggered offerings from a single designer over a three-month period. But the retailer recently began releasing all the apparel at once and shrinking the window to 45 days to account for the narrowing attention span of shoppers. "They want to be in line the first day it's available and get it all and show it off to their friends," Mr. Thomas said.

The program has been so successful that Target is now doing it in other categories, including shoes, handbags and jewelry.

Historically, marketers rolled out limited-time products to test the market on a large scale, especially consumer packaged-goods makers, experts said. But these days, companies seem more interested in creating a little buzz. Take PepsiCo, which since 2009 has been rolling out limited "throwback" versions of Mountain Dew and Pepsi in a move to lure customers with retro packaging. Or as a spokeswoman said, give customers a "nostalgic trip back in time."

McDonald's is a limited-time master, toying with customers with temptations like the McRib, offered intermittently for years by franchisees. Last fall, the fast-feeder made a rare national limited rollout, whipping up frenzy with an ad campaign featuring fans in loving embraces with the saucy pork patty.

The most classic example of all just might be Mallomars, the sinful chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies covered in chocolate made by Kraft Food's Nabisco unit. The treats are only offered from the fall to spring and mostly in the New York metro area, where their yearly arrival is a harbinger of winter. Sold since 1913, the cookies were first only made available in cold months because grocers, who didn't have air conditioning, feared they would melt in the summer. Kraft has kept the tradition alive in the modern era, seizing on the seasonality with a Facebook page where fans cheer their return in the fall. "They're baaaaack," posted one enthusiast last September. "Bought 3 boxes! ... Then I set off a buying frenzy in line."

Of course, not every marketer is into the trend. Domino's Pizza has mostly stopped offering limited-time pizzas, which over the years have included Oreo cookie and garlic-bread versions.

"We took a different approach: to consistently advertise our core menu items, doing away with the 'gimmicks' -- if you will," spokesman Chris Brandon said in an email. "We've found that has been a much more powerful marketing tool for us. Customers know when they see us advertise something that it is available and here to stay. That's not to say we won't ever do a limited-time offer again, but we're going for the sustained, repeat sales vs. the one-hit boost."

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