Little Sleepies are pajamas and play clothes for children made out of bamboo cellulose.
Bethanie Taylor, 27, the mother of a five-month old baby boy who lives in Springhill, Kan., knows she likes Little Sleepies. “But I don’t know if I am brainwashed into it,” she said.
There is plenty for a discerning parent to like: The material is hypoallergenic, antifungal, odor resistant and has natural UV protection. The items come in thousands of patterns and designs, which the company releases weekly. Instead of offering all those options on the company’s website, as most retailers do, Little Sleepies “drops” these baby pajamas at a particular time.
It’s like a sleep set size 12 to 18 months is the latest pair of Nike sneakers. “Stars & Stripes” jammies, perfect for Fourth of July, for example, became available at noon on a Tuesday in mid-May. A few days earlier, a camping pattern with bear cubs and cabins dropped. The company advertises when the drops will take place on social media, where it has more than a hundred thousand followers.
Each collection is limited-edition, which means there is not enough for everyone. Some items sell out within five minutes, so Ms. Taylor, who is a director of operations at an insurance company, takes special measures to make sure she can snag what she wants.
“I set an alarm if I know a drop is coming,” she said. “Some other moms even pre-load gift cards into their account so they won’t lose the items if checkout takes too long.”
The pajamas are a better fit for Ms. Taylor’s son than other brands she has tried. “My son is very tall, and these fit him for longer than the ones I would buy in the store,” she said. “I also like that bamboo is a good UV protectant. I can’t put sunscreen on my son yet, so I feel good about taking him outside in these.”
Then there is the undeniable appeal of the hype.
“It’s kind of like a mob mentality,” she said. “You see them post these new prints, and all the moms on Facebook love them. It makes you think, ‘I love this too, and they only have this limited number, so I have to get it before it sells out.’”
A range of companies, big and small and in a variety of categories, are utilizing “the drop,” releasing limited-edition items in small numbers at a particular time. Some businesses that opened during the pandemic have only sold products this way. More established companies are turning from more traditional sales models, like releasing a collection every season or having a store that consistently has merchandise, and adopting this strategy.
Marketing and behavioral experts say there are a few reasons it works, especially now.
“What I like about product drops is that it gives the element of surprise and scarcity,” said Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School. “I think that excites a lot of consumers.”
She said customers were especially susceptible to this type of entertainment during the pandemic, when they were bored at home. “An interesting question would be in a year or two, is this a permanent change to the business model or are we going to go back to a more seasonal sales model?” she said.
It also changes consumer behavior, said Abigail Sussman, a behavioral scientist and marketing professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “It turns a decision that you could postpone — maybe you will buy something later or not at all — into something you have to buy right now,” she said.
For smaller businesses, selling a set amount of inventory at specific times means less overhead.
Before the pandemic, Miriam Weiskind, who lives in Brooklyn, quit her job as an art director to pursue her passion of making pizza. Her dream, like many chefs, is to open a restaurant, but the economics of that are daunting. So in the meantime, she started The Za Report. Using a drop model, she sells her pies twice a week at breweries and street fairs.
She announces where she will be on Instagram a few days in advance, and lines are usually waiting for her when she opens. She sells 70 to 120 pies at a time, and some days they sell out within an hour.
She likes that her overhead is low and believes this sales model allows her to sell her pies at higher prices (they range from $18 to $24). “It keeps the demand high and the supply low,” she said. “Each pie is special because I don’t make that many of them, so I can charge a lot more.”
Bear Walker, in Daphne, Ala., makes skateboards that have pop-culture themes like Pokemon or Marvel Comics. He releases one collection, each with only 250 boards, every six weeks.
By creating scarcity Mr. Walker said he can make his product desirable. “These are high-end, handcrafted and difficult to make,” he said. “When someone gets one, I want them to know it’s a special piece and a bucket list item.”
Some of his drops sell out within 45 minutes, something he watches happen live. “We have a big screen in the office with a map of the globe on it, and you can watch people going onto the websites and purchasing it,” he said. “I usually sit there for a couple of hours, just watching.”
Madison Tompkins, 28, a software developer who lives in Courvelle, Iowa, said the drops are just as exciting for consumers.
When a skateboard drop is set to take place, she blocks out two hours of her day from work to make sure to get the item she wants. “You also have to know how to do it. If you refresh the page every 10 to 15 seconds the system will think you’re a bot and block you,” she said. “It happened to me once. I wanted a board so quickly that I kept refreshing.”
More established companies are also trying to get in on the scarcity trend.
Kate Quinn, a children’s clothing company like Little Sleepies, had been in business for 16 years, releasing seasonal collections on its website with little fanfare, before it started using product drops in 2018 as part of a new model to sell directly to consumers. Business has grown substantially since.
The company even started making its website go completely dark a few hours before a release, something that drums up excitement. “People who know how to shop Kate Quinn understand how it works and know to be ready,” said Paul Weinstein, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer. “It can be disorienting for new customers because we do these drops, and the first 10 minutes are nuts, like we sell out of items within minutes. So they are like, ‘I don’t understand what just happened.’” (There is even a secondhand market for these items.)
Mr. Weinstein said a benefit of the drops is they provide endless social media content.
“There is always something new to talk about,” he said. “We always have a new print coming out, we always have a new style, a new collection and a new drop.”
Ms. Bellezza, of Columbia Business School, said one of the downsides is that it encourages more consumption, especially in a moment when some in the industry are pushing “slow fashion” and the idea that consumers should “buy less but buy better.”
“The drops do the opposite; they educate consumers to keep buying, and from a sustainability perspective, I don’t think that is great,” she said.
And she sees this kind of consumption expanding. The Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, for example, offers a “Night of Indulgence” package that guests can only purchase once a month.
“A lot of different businesses are kind of trying to ride the wave,” said Ms. Bellezza. “People are now talking about drop culture.”
Companies that tried product drops in the past are now finding audiences much more receptive to them.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society sells limited editions of one-of-a-kind Scotch whisky every month. The rare bottles are not sold in stores. They are only available to members — there are 36,000 around the world — who buy them online or over the phone on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Ben Diedrich, the company’s senior director, used to have to spend a lot of time explaining the selling model to new members. “They wouldn’t get why they can’t sign on and buy things whenever they want,” he said.
Now, those conversations hardly ever happen. “People get it now,” he said. “They understand that consumerism has changed.”