Let’s be honest here: Flash sales are catnip to our feline appetites for travel bargains. The booking sites started invading our screens about five years ago, when such companies as Jetsetter, SniqueAway, Tablet, LivingSocial Escapesand others began trotting out time-sensitive sales on lodgings and vacation packages. The sites seduce travelers into the pressure cooker with sharply discounted prices. But they also open minds to vacations that we may never have considered but now desperately covet.
“This is the inspirational trip,” said Douglas Quinby, senior research director at PhoCusWright, which recently released a study of flash sale deals. “A key element is the spontaneity factor: ‘I wasn’t planning to go on this trip, but I found a good deal.’ ”
Travel is one of the largest segments in the e-commerce universe, yet flash sale sites currently supply only a small pinpoint of light. According to Quinby, in the U.S. market, these sites generated $71 million in sales during the fourth quarter of 2011, a drip compared with Expedia’s $3.8 billion. But their modest numbers belie their seismic impact on how we plan and book travel. Let me ask you again: Why are you really considering the Spruce Point Inn?
“It’s a discovery,” said Daniel Craig, a Vancouver, B.C.-based hotel and travel industry consultant. With flash sale sites, “you’ll often book a vacation based on a great deal to a destination that you might not have thought of otherwise.”
Without question, the sites pluck our spontaneity nerve. Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing and brand management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, said that 70 percent of consumers who respond to a Living Social deal buy within 15 minutes of receiving it. He compares the impulse purchase of a flash sale deal to impetuously grabbing a pack of gum or a magazine in the supermarket checkout line.
“One pattern is for certain,” said Karyl Leigh Barnes, senior vice president at Development Counsellors International, a travel marketing firm, “consumers are learning to book more quickly to take advantage of an offer.”
Another common behavior: For long-haul trips, travelers often approach the sales with a specific location in mind. “It appears that consumers know they want to go to Peru or Australia, et cetera,” she said. But with short getaways, bargain-hunters are more impressionable and willing to be swayed by the deal more than the destination.