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But it’s easy to forget that the salesperson on the other side of the transaction is trying just as hard to get inside your head, with the ultimate goal of making the sale (ideally at the highest possible price).
Salespeople have a number of tricks up their sleeves, many of which you may not even be aware of, and you might have even fallen for a couple of them at some point. Here are a few to watch out for:
Phillip Reed, consumer editor for car information website Edmunds.com, once went undercover to work as a car salesman for an article series. He said that during his time there, a veteran salesman revealed one of the tricks he uses on female customers.
“He said, ‘Here’s one that’s guaranteed to work with women: Tell them the car matches their eyes,’” he recalls.
But the efficacy of this line is questionable. Reed says that he later met a woman who recounted hearing a similar line from another salesman, and that it completely turned her off from the car. And Teri Gault, a shopping expert from TheGroceryGame.com, says that similar attempts at flattery tend to backfire when she hears them.
“When they say, ‘This color will look really good on you,’ I almost take offense to that,” she says. “I’m not going to be manipulated by people giving me compliments.”
We covered this one in our look at marketing buzzwords, and salespeople are just as adept at it: Anytime you can create the notion that a product or deal is scarce or limited, you create a sense of urgency that will spur the customer to buy.
In some cases, a salesperson may imply that the product will be sold out soon. That, of course, is a lot more effective when you’re dealing with a house or a model of car. (“If you come into the dealership on the weekend, they’ll say, ‘We’re getting a lot of foot traffic, but if you want to pay this much, the car is yours now,’” Reed says.) If it’s a situation where product scarcity isn’t a factor, they’ll instead do ostensibly limited-time offers to spur you into making an immediate purchase. For instance, we’ve often noticed that every gym in town will tell you that they’re willing to waive the sign-up fee as part of the special promotion, and we suspect that they only have a sign-up fee so they can waive it “for a limited time.”
Mark Down the Markup
Along those same lines, it’s not uncommon for salespeople to mark up a product well above the market price, just so they can create a false impression of a deal when they come down on the price. Reed says that he often saw this in the dealership, where it was used as a hedge against people who could come in trying to haggle the price.
“They’ll say, ‘Here’s the sticker price, but it has a thousand-dollar incentive,’ so they create a sense that they negotiated with themselves,” he explains. “It’s like the grocery store business–they raise the price but then put it on sale, and people just see the sale.”
The key here is to shop around. Just because a salesperson or store advertises something as 30% off doesn’t mean that it’s 30% cheaper than you can find it anywhere else. Usually that 30% figure refers to the discount off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which few retailers are actually asking for.
It’s not uncommon for furniture stores to take a centerpiece item–say, a bed–and surround it with all the accessories you might find in a real bedroom. While that’s an understandable strategy for allowing people to visualize how it will look once the room is completed, it also serves to enhance the core product via ancillary products that aren’t included in the price.
“I go to a furniture store that displays their furniture with the most outrageously expensive accessories,” Gault says. “The couches are kind of middle-of-the-road price range, but they put on a $300 throw pillow. You walk into a store and every piece looks gorgeous because it’s surrounded by things that you’re not going to buy.”
She recommends clearing some of the accessories out so you can consider the piece on its own. You might even consider bringing in your own accessories from home to see how it will look in a more realistic (and affordable) context.
Make a House Feel Like a Home
Most people have heard the old realtor trick of baking a batch of cookies in a home before an open house, which is intended to make it feel like a warm, welcoming home. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Realtors will also try to improve the vibe of a house by wetting the grass to make it shine, putting on mood music and turning on all the lights to illuminate all the available space. For more real estate secrets, check out this look at common open house tricks.
The Emotional Play
The smell of baked cookies is intended to play on the emotions of would-be homebuyers, but real estate agents aren’t alone in targeting the heart instead of the head. Just as Super Bowl advertisers try every year to create an emotional connection to their brand, salespeople will also do their best to appeal to your emotions.
A car salesperson, for instance, will often try to close the deal right after concluding a test drive, with the idea being that the feeling of driving a new car will take hold of the customer and temporarily override any rational objections he or she might have, Reed says. And he adds that a salesperson might also repeatedly nod and smile throughout a conversation, hoping that these positive cues will translate into the customer saying “yes.”
Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychology expert and professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, says that the nodding method definitely works, and she’s even used it to build engagement while teaching classes.
“Most consumers wouldn’t believe that they could be convinced in a nonverbal way like that,” she says.
Fun With Words and Numbers
Which sounds like a better deal: “buy one, get a second 50% off” or “buy two, get both for 25% off”?
As Gault points out, these mean the exact same thing. Likewise, anytime you can get the word “free” in a promotion it’s going to get people more excited than any sort of dollar-off sale, even if it’s just “free medium drink with your meal.” Good salespeople know that it’s all about how you word it.
As an aside, Gault mentions another bit of number trickery she’s seen in stores: A circular rack of clothes will have a “70% off” sign placed on top, but once you get to the register you find that the sign actually just referred to one arm of the rack.
“And by then, you’re kind of sold on it,” she says.
Make You Feel Obligated
Ever seen a furniture store give out free cookies, or a car dealer offer you a drink? If so, you probably felt some gratitude for the gesture, which is what they were banking on.
“We’re kind of prewired to have a sense of reciprocity, and it takes the smallest amount of niceness on the part of a salesperson to make you feel obligated to buy,” Yarrow explains.
Of course, if a salesperson offered a free cookie with the purchase of a couch, you’d laugh in his face, but offering it as a seemingly magnanimous gesture creates a sense of obligation. She adds that this is the same reason a shoe salesperson will bring out several pairs of shoes to let you try on--the more it seems like they’re helping you, the more you’ll feel like you need to make a purchase.
The Snooty Waiter
While being friendly and helpful is usually the way to go, salespeople at high-end retailers might find some benefit in acting aloof and snobbish.
“They’ll create a superior attitude so that a certain sort of customer will feel like they need to please that person,” she explains. It’s akin to a snooty waiter scoffing at your choice of wine so that you’ll feel like you need to order a more expensive bottle to avoid embarrassing yourself.
Incidentally, Yarrow suggests that such a strategy may not be as effective as it was before the recession took hold and Americans realized that it was more important to pay down their credit card debt than to impress snobbish handbag salespeople.
A related tactic is to make customers feel as though they’re part of some exclusive club. Gault says that she often hears salespeople at retail stores refer to items as being part of an “exclusive line” that you can’t find anywhere else.
“I’m not impressed,” she says. “Maybe you’re the only one that carries it, but there’s probably a whole lot of others that carry something like it.” Indeed, in our experience, “exclusive” often just means that it’s the only place you can get the product in a given color.
Yarrow adds that salespeople can likewise make people feel like they’re part of an exclusive club by telling customers that a certain celebrity or high-society figure recently bought a given product. Interestingly, she says that this trick tends to work better on men.
“Men more than women like to know who else in what hierarchy is buying some product,” she says. “Men like to rank things more.”