Apr 192013

I came across this interesting little piece on how stores manipulate your senses to get you to buy more crap.  Like the other day, it brought back a slew of warm and fuzzy memories of how us retail worker bees were trained in the fine art of conning you out of your money.

A successful store, or chain of stores, does well because of a variety of reasons.  Perceived low prices, false customer service, and selling what people think they want.  But the really successful ones apply a large variety of techniques, as outlined in the link above to take it all that one step further.  Sights, sounds, smells, all designed to make you want to give them your money, regardless of need for whatever crap they are peddling.  They spend an inordinate amount of time training the worker bees to package the displays on the sales floor in such a way as to take full advantage of what works best to separate customer from cash.  I know, I went through it all.

0x600When I started working for Harley-Davidson back in the late 1980’s, the craze for the motorcycle brand was just getting started.  Harley was on the brink of vanishing from the scene in 1983 when some investors got together and brought the company back.  At the time, the motorcycles were garbage, the reputation of the customer was the hard core biker, and the dealerships were little more than shacks and dumps.  But with the introduction of a new engine, and a new line of motorcycles to go with it, suddenly the bikes were reliable, and mainstream people were buying them.  Things really took off when gazillionaire Malcolm Forbes, and his then girlfriend, Liz Taylor, were often photographed riding the new machines.  Out of the blue, Harley’s became cool and the dealerships started moving bikes and associated merchandise.

Back in Milwaukee, where the corporate headquarters are located, there were more changes afoot.  People were getting hired who knew how to market and they began a full fledged rebranding of the company from top to bottom.  Slowly, dealerships were transformed from mud huts to sparkling, shiny retail showrooms.  Old school dealers who didn’t want to play along were bought out by investor groups with car dealership backgrounds.  A sideline product, the famous black t-shirt, got transformed into a full money making profit center known as Motorclothes.  A full line of everything from leather jackets to ties to collectibles began to fill up corners of the show rooms.  The average customer was no longer the lowly biker, but a wealthy or middle class professional looking to cure his or her mid life crisis by playing biker.  The outlaw was gone, but not the image.  Sell the sizzle, not the steak was the mantra.

For those of us in the worker bee retail world of Harley, our training began with Harley University.  Go ahead and laugh, it is real and still goes on today.  Harley U became the training program for all facets of the dealership.  Parts, bike sales, finance, motorclothes, service, and management alike all were required to participate.  Harley ran a special incentive program for dealerships who participated and successfully kept up with all the latest classes.  Those who did so, got points and rewards like free vacations to faraway places.  I should mention here that the OWNERS, not the worker bees got the rewards.  The worker bees got to do the training and then go back to work.  The owners got to go play.  If you got hired as a worker bee you had to complete all the necessary classes for your department, or you would not be working there.  The program continues on to this day.

Personally, at the time, I jumped on any class I could get.  I was still thinking I was on the fast track to making a career in selling oil and t-shirts, so I was always more than willing to take whatever classes were available.  I would even on occasion stray into other classes in other departments.  At first, these classes were given live at different places around the country.  I got to spend more than few weeks in Milwaukee and other cities to attend such classes.  Later as the interwebs came into being, the classes were offered on tape or through a computer.

Each and every class, with the exception of the ones for the service dept. which concentrated on actually fixing stuff, were designed to show the worker bee how to sell.  Everything from greeting and closing a customer, to shipping and receiving stock, to correctly displaying it on the showroom floor.  Many of the tricks outlined in the link above were used.  Colors, textures, smells not so much, every dealership smells like oil and leather, and display fixtures are designed to show off the merchandise in such a way as to elicit the most sales.  You are taught how to hang merchandise, small impulse items around the cash register, put the parts counter or the motor clothes in the back of the store so you have to walk past the big shiny new motorcycles to get there.  Hell, there are special classes, and a little device, on how to properly fold t-shirts.  It was all part of the training and it worked, very, very well.  Harley has fallen on hard times over the last few years.  Their customer based is aging and they refuse to advance their product line beyond what worked before, but during the 1990’s up to 2003, the 100th anniversary of the country, Harley was at the top of their game and the envy of retail everywhere.  Harley was ranked as one of the best companies to work for and many others began to emulate their success.

Walk into a Harley dealership sometime, just for fun.  When you go through the door your senses are overloaded with sights, sounds, colors, music, and the smell of new motorcycles and leather jackets.  You get the immediate impression that something really cool and exciting is going on there.  People are milling about, sitting on motorcycles, watching promo videos on big screens, trying on cool looking clothes.  Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

You can find similar styles in other stores.  The first time I took my parents into a Bass Pro, my old man about dropped to the floor in amazement.  Before him lay a full nirvana of outdoorsy stuff.  Fishing, boating, cool looking displays, it’s a remarkable marketing device.  Each Harley store has a theme to it.  In Orlando, the store is built to look like the original factory in Milwaukee.  In Miami, go into the Bass Pro, look up at the ceiling, and it looks like you are underwater inside a shipwreck.

You can also tell which companies are training their worker bees.  At Home Depot, every employee is required under pain of death, to greet any customer within a certain distance.  Failure to do so means death by nail gun.  (They don’t quite get the reasoning as you still get the perfunctory and useless, “May I help you?”, but they are trying.)  Places like Target and wallymart go strictly by a numbers game and rely on display and sensory overload rather than real customer service to move their crap.  Specialty stores like Harley, like Bass Pro, work it a bit harder by having personnel who are trained and sometimes, paid to sell.

Why bring all this up?  Because knowledge is power.  When you understand how the game is played, you are less likely to fall victim to all the sales techniques and wind up buying crap you didn’t need in the first place.  One of the worst things you can do is go into a store, or worse, a mall, with no other reason than to “…just look around.”.  I guarantee that the few minutes or hours of just looking around will result in you spending money on something you neither needed or wanted.  All that will happen is you will fall victim to one of the many sales techniques and fork over your cash because something was displayed a certain way, a special smell caught your eye, or it felt like a good deal, regardless of actual need.  It’s tough to resist. I fall for it.  Don’t ever let me walk into an Apple store just to look around.  Hell, I fall for it every time I go to Publix.  I planned on getting some fish the other day but looky here, shrimp on sale.  Well, the shrimp was cheaper and I love shrimp but I need some corn on the cob to go with it and you certainly can’t eat shrimp and corn and not have a slice of key lime pie for dessert.  See how it works?

Shop for need, not for something to do.  Go to the store with what you know you want to get, make a list if necessary, and stick to it.  Resist the urge to spend on stuff you don’t need, can’t afford, and may never really use.  Don’t fall for all the tricks of the retail trade and you will wind up with more money in your pocket and less crap in your life.

Less is more.

Capt. Fritter

I still employ some of that retail worker bee training today.  Look at all them cool apps over there on the sidebar.  Ain’t those icons purty?  Go ahead and click a link, download the app, it’s free.  It won’t hurt.  Ooh look, a book about moving to the Keys.  You’re thinking about moving to the Keys.  Here’s a book written by somebody who did it.  Go ahead, it’s only $3.99.  You need that.

See how it works?


  5 Responses to “Retail Tricks Of The Trade…”

  1. Yes – this is my weakness. I’m planning my one month trip to Costco this weekend for a few items. My plan is to stick to the list only and to avoid the taste stations all over the store…that is what kills me. Some nice little old lady spooning out ice cream into small sample cups and telling everyone how good it tastes and how this kind is really good for you and it’s super cheap….well, you know where this is going. My goal is to avoid these traps and stick only to the list, getting my butt back home as quickly as possible.

    By the way – your marketing strategy sucked me into the Fl Keys book, but it was worth the read 🙂

  2. wow. that was interesting reading about harley.
    marketing is creative. and so appeals to me. but. i hate the buying selling game. i just like the genius behind it i guess. amazing when you think about it. or then maybe not. we’re pretty much like lemmings to the sea cliffs. doesn’t take much to run us off! LOL.
    never knew elizabeth dated forbes.
    you forgot the two BIGGEST ripoffs in retail ~ over 100% markup ~ jewelry and furniture. pathetic.
    great post capt. as always.