What Does It REALLY Mean When An Online Shop Says “Only One Left”?


If you’ve ever shopped for anything online, you’ve probably seen messages that say “only one left”.

Does this mean that there really is only one of that thing left? Or is it just a trick to try to get you to buy something now and not wait until later?

The truth is that it could be one or the other, but there might be ways to tell, depending on the product.

what does only one left really mean when you shop online

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Warning customers when stock is low.

When you’re selling products online, it is important to tell customers when you’re going to run out of things. Leaving a message that there’s only one left, or just a limited number that’s available, is a courtesy to customers who might lose out if they wait to buy things.

However, it’s also commonly understood in marketing circles that telling people that things are going to be sold out pretty soon is a good way to get people to buy them now.

Because of that, a lot of marketplaces will put messages on listings to make it look like there’s a low inventory when there really isn’t.

Depending on how the website is set up, sellers might not actually have the option to turn those messages off even if there is more than one item available.

It gets tricky, because there are a lot of sites that take advantage of the fear of missing out and scarcity to get people to buy instead of thinking about it.

Honest warnings vs. scarcity tactics.

Scarcity is the idea that if something is rare or scarce or hard to get, people will want it more. It’s a pretty common marketing tactic, and a lot of people will put messages like “only one left” on their listings even if they have more than one, or they can make more.

In addition, a lot of marketplaces like Etsy or eBay will put messages that imply that there aren’t very many of those things left to try to get people to buy things.

In the case of Etsy, we have no control over that. The Etsy interface is set up the way that Etsy wants to set it up, and sellers don’t have any choice in the matter about what messages are presented to customers.

It’s totally based on the inventory number that we have on the listing itself, and when it gets below a certain point, messages start showing up about how you need to buy it soon because it will sell out soon.

I personally don’t like the scarcity messages on Etsy for my type of products, because I make everything as they’re ordered and that means that I don’t ever really run out of things. I think that kind of message is a little deceptive and it just ends up confusing people.

On the other hand, sometimes there are a limited number of things available, and you do have to take those messages seriously if you want to buy something and not run the risk of not being able to get it later.

And to make it more complicated, a lot of sellers only put three items in stock on Etsy because when it gets down to three items in the inventory, Etsy puts a warning up about “only 3 left in stock”.

So even if it’s something that can be made over and over, some people will put only three in the inventory in order to trigger that “only three left” or “low inventory” warnings that Etsy puts on the listings.

rare find notice on a vintage listing
“Rare find” message on a vintage item.

Handmade vs. Vintage “only one left” warnings.

One example of a type of product that would make sense to have the “only one left” warning on them would be vintage items.

A lot of vintage sellers only have one of the thing that they’re selling because it’s a vintage item, and there might not be another one that they could find to sell. It’s a OOAK item so there really is only one.

The way that vintage works on Etsy, is that Etsy will put messages like “only one left” or “rare find” on items that only have one of those things in the inventory.

That’s actually true, because sellers don’t have more than that, and if you wait then you might not be able to buy it.

For handmade items, though, it may or may not be true that there is only one of those things left.

Like I said before, I make everything that I sell myself as they’re ordered, so I never really run out.

Most marketplaces make sellers put an inventory number into the system so that those listings will be temporarily deactivated when the inventory gets to zero.

This prevents people from buying things that are out of stock, and it prevents disappointment for customers and a lot of canceling orders and refunds.

So sometimes handmade items are one-of-a-kind or limited stock because we only have so many supplies to make that thing, but sometimes there is an unlimited number of them if we can keep making the same thing over and over.

Another thing that you run into is that some sellers genuinely do only make one-of-a-kind items, so that message does make sense for them because you won’t be able to buy the same thing later if you don’t get it now.

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Warnings that Etsy and Marketplaces put up.

As I mentioned above, Etsy and other marketplacesOpens in a new tab. like eBay and Amazon will put messages on listings to try to get people to buy things now instead of thinking about it.

They’re using scarcity as a tactic and they’re basically trying to scare you into buying things because you’re afraid that you’ll miss out on it.

This isn’t anything that Etsy sellers can control, because marketplaces in general are always experimenting with things to try to get people to buy more.

Their goal is always to make more money, so selling things is the basic way that they make more money, and they just want people to buy things regardless of how they do it.

If telling people if there’s only one left is a way that increases revenue for the marketplace, they’re going to put that message on listings whether it’s true or not.

I said this before, but I really wish that they wouldn’t put that on our listings unless we were able to opt in, because it does confuse customers a lot of the time.

I get people messaging me asking if they should buy something now because there’s only one left and they need it in 6 months.

I always tell them that’s Etsy’s thing with inventory, and that they can just order it later or they can order it now and store it, but I won’t run out of it.

If there’s ever a question about whether you should order something now and avoid missing out on it, contact the seller directly to see what the situation with the inventory is.

Only one left message highlighted on a listing for cupcake toppers

Warnings that individual sellers’ websites put up.

If you’re on an individual website that’s owned by someone other than a Marketplace, you may or may not see messages about inventory guidelines and stock numbers.

Depending on the website template that was used we might be stuck with the messages that the website chooses to put up.

On my website Opens in a new tab.it will say “only one left” if it gets down to only one item in the inventory.

I have no control over that because it’s written into the code of the template that I use, and I just have to keep an eye on the inventory so that I increase it when it gets low in case people want to buy more than one.

I do have people send me messages about my website showing that things are sold out too, because it doesn’t tell me when the inventory gets down to zero.

So there’s a lot that goes into it on the back end the customers don’t even see, and it doesn’t always mean that there really is only one thing left if it says that.

But again, it might mean that, because it might be something that I don’t have anymore of to sell, like vintage items.

Or it could really mean that I’m not going to be selling it anymore, or that I don’t have more supplies to make more and that’s the last one left!


So what does “only one left” really mean?

Sometimes it really does mean that there’s only one left and you shouldn’t wait to buy it if you really want that thing.

Other times, it means that the website template or the marketplace is putting messages on there to try to get people to buy faster and not wait.

If you ever have a question and you’re on a marketplace where you can contact the seller, or you’re on that seller’s individual website, most people would be able to answer your questions about how many things really are left or things are going to sell out.

However, as a general rule, it’s probably good to assume that in vintage shops the message that there’s only one left is really true. If you want that item you should get it now.

For handmade shops that make one of a kind items like jewelry, it very well could be true because the artist might not make that thing again. You might not want to wait if you really love something and it’s the only one listed.

For products like digital downloads it’s probably not true, because that’s a digital product that could be sold and downloaded multiple times.

For things like supplies, it may or may not be true depending on what inventory the seller actually has in stock, so you might want to contact them if you’re not sure.

And for handmade products where there is more of an inventory listed for most things, it may or may not be true depending on whether that seller is able to make more of it or whether they are out of supplies and are only making a certain number. In situations like that you should contact the seller to ask.


Kara Buntin

Kara Buntin has run a profitable home-based business since 1999, and has a background in art, theater design, and cake decorating. She's a top Etsy seller with over 51,000 sales on Etsy and her own website, and helps other home-based business owners with their business goals and SEO. She founded the Artisan Shopping Directory website to promote the artisans who are members of her EShop Success marketing program.

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