Used Boats and the Scarcity Principle

Back in 2012, I highlighted some of the buzzwords and phrases to be wary of in ad copy for used boats. In that blog, I talked about the use of phrases like “won’t last long,” and how it was almost always baloney. Typically the seller has no idea how long it will take to sell a used boat. The phrase is put in the ad because of the “scarcity principle” and its influence on people reading the ad.

Classic Bertram 31s are sought-after boats. Newer Bertrams, too, have their followings. Some of them may even be "rare." But it takes research to know.  Even then, is rare a good thing in this case?
Classic Bertram 31s are sought-after boats. Newer Bertrams, too, have their followings. Some of them may even be “rare.” But it takes research to know. Rare doesn’t necessarily mean more valuable, and even a boat that’s both rare and valuable may not be right for you.

You see the technique used all the time, nearly everywhere you look, in phrases like “Time is running out! So is inventory!” “Last chance to save!” “Hurry! Sale ends Sunday.” “Five days only.” Open your local newspaper and the odds are good you can find an example of the scarcity principle in use.

Let’s examine it for a second. In simple economic terms, that which is rare is more valuable than something that is plentiful, right? That’s why antiques go up in value, because there aren’t many around anymore. That’s also why auctions are so effective. Lots of buyers pursuing one item drives up the price.

People selling used boats would like you to believe the same thing.

The interesting thing is how we as people are drawn to what is rare or even perceived to be rare. For example, there was a story in the Los Angeles Times about a plant called the corpse flower.  This particular plant is extraordinarily rare, and it rarely blooms, but when it does, it emits a stench so foul you have to hold your nose whenever you get close enough to look at it. Despite the objectionable odor, people were lining up to see it. Nobody wants to miss out on something, even if it’s awful. We can’t help ourselves, it seems.

Here’s how powerful the concept is. Florida State University students were surveyed to rate the quality of campus cafeteria food. As you might expect, they found it unsatisfactory, that is until nine days later, when the survey was administered again after the cafeteria had closed due to a fire and they had not been able to eat there for two weeks. In the second survey, they rated the food quality higher. The food quality hadn’t changed a bit, but the availability had.

The technique of using the scarcity principle  finds its way into ads on For example: 1996 Bertram 30 Moppie Loaded Rare in Marina Del Rey, CA.  I don’t know whether the listing will still be there when you read this, but my point is that the word “rare” is in the headline to let you know this is something you should covet, even if you’re not looking for a Bertram.

So, how do you defend yourself against an emotional response that is ingrained in human behavior? It’s difficult. Even knowing the causes and mechanics might not be enough to defend ourselves against it, because conscious thought is suppressed by an emotional reaction to the scarcity principle. We believe it’s baloney, but what if it isn’t? That nagging doubt is always there, well, nagging.

The best defense is to investigate. In the case of the rare 30-foot Moppie, anyone interested in such a boat should do a search on and other classified sites to see exactly how many of them are out there — and to remember that the emotional pull of the scarcity principle is that the joy comes not from experiencing a boat, but from possessing it. With all due respect to the owner of the Moppie, even if it is rare, it’s still just a boat.

So as you shop for a used boat, be aware of how the scarcity principle can affect you, and be prepared for how it can affect your decision-making process. It’s a wily little phenomenon.


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