Airlines are apt to post fare sales lasting for a certain amount of time, sometimes even just a few hours.
Airlines are apt to post fare sales lasting for a certain amount of time, sometimes even just a few hours. - 
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Whether it's a coupon arriving in your inbox, a time-limited Groupon offer or a tweet alerting you to a right-in-the-moment quickie deal, we've entered an era of instant retail. In other words, flash sales.

Valerie Folkes, marketing professor at USC's Marshall School of Business, says although it may seem counter-intuitive, flash sales can make sense for merchants. Advertising is changing as retailers adapt to new media and younger consumers migrate away from more traditional outlets like TV, commercial radio and newspapers.

A flash sale can entice consumers, make a brand or a restaurant seem exclusive and crowded, or force a potential buyer to stop procrastinating and spend. Take the Groupon example: as the clock ticks down on a deal, the number of buyers climbs. With limited time and limited number of offers, a deal might seem more exclusive. A restaurant might begin to look more popular, and the influx of customers can do a business good.

Folkes notes this short-term satisfaction might not lead to a lasting relationship, but done well, a flash deal can help with brand loyalty. She cites JetBlue, which posts deals that may seem like obvious losses: $32 tickets out of New York City (a deal that only lasted 32 minutes, while it was 32 degrees out) and 90 percent-off sales (on 90 degree days). These sales force customers to act fast, and even though JetBlue might be losing money on some tickets, overall, the sale works as an ad.

"It's kind of a fun idea. It gets people thinking about JetBlue because it reminds people: JetBlue offers all these great deals, I really need to pay attention to Jet Blue, because who knows what they'll next," Folkes says. "What they're really doing here is buying great publicity. They're getting people talking about their airline, and about travel, and if you miss out on this, if you don't actually get on their airplane, you are now thinking about going someplace, and you're thinking about going someplace that JetBlue flies."

But businesses have to be careful not to foster the idea that you should never pay full price. Timing is important, and people buying during a sale should feel that they got lucky. And many people do, especially when they score a great deal that seems like a secret.

George Hobica, head of AirFareWatchdog.com, specializes in secret deals. His company mines flight searchers for the lowest possible fares: the advertised on-sale tickets, the unadvertised super-sale tickets and the blooper fares — mistakes that make flights way, way cheaper than they ever should be.

Getting in on the sweetest deals requires a lot of focus, patience and luck. There are frequently very few seats available and very little time to book. And if you do find out about a deal in time to make a big purchase?

"You really have to jump on it very, very quickly," Hobica says. "What I tell people is put it on a 24 hour hold ... and then talk to your spouses and your friends and get the hotels and get all your ducks in line."

Hobica recommends keeping a vigilant eye on social media and signing up for alerts from sites like AirFareWatchdog, Hopper and Kayak. Even then, it's a little bit like playing musical chairs — except when the music stops, a million people want to sit down.

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