The Great Sea Salt Saleman

Monday, July 11th, 02011 at 11:11 UTC

This last month, I was traveling extensively for almost 30 days. I saw plenty and learned even more, but one event was interesting enough for me to make some notes shortly after it happened.

One evening in San Francisco, I wandered around a shopping mall waiting to meet-up with friends. I arrived way too early, so I took some time to look around, relax and see if there were any purchases to be had. This was a large shopping mall, so big some shops took multiple floors, while others spilled out into kiosks. There were plenty of phone contract stations, phone cover bling salesmen, massage chairs, face creams and other cosmetics all scattered in your path. There must have been a very entrepreneurial salesman or a fad erupting, because there were 1-2 Dead Sea Salt kiosks on every floor.

All-in-all I ignored these shops and kiosks and in turn the staff ignored me walking around, until the Dead Sea Salt salesman singled me out. I was quickly accosted and this is where it gets interesting. I by no means am a salesman myself and am just as guilty as everyone else for getting sucked into buying pointless tat, but over the last few years, I have been reading more and more books about pop-psychology, linguistics, cognitive science and a dash of sales and marketing. These topics interest me so I tend to analyze (sometimes overly so) events to see if they can be broken down and learnt from.

As I walked through the mall, a lady from the Dead Sea Salt kiosk on the second floor stepped gently out, partly blocking my trajectory.

By getting in my way slightly, I was forced to acknowledge her existence. Had she shouted from a chair it would have been easy for me to ignore and pass her by, but now I had to actively step around to ignore her and no one wants to feel like that.

Before saying anything about her product, she asked if I was from Spain.

This was a brilliant start for several reasons. Firstly, she is building a rapport with me. Maybe she isn’t interested in selling me salt, maybe she genuinely thinks I am Spanish and wants to chat? She isn’t pushing the product and coming on too strong. At this point, it is hard to ignore her, she is half-way in my path and has asked me a semi-personaly question.

Secondly, she has set up the initial question “Are you from Spain” to her advantage. No matter what my response, she already has a follow-up. If I say, “No, I’m not from Spain”, she can reply “Oh, I thought you where, you look so Spanish” (a compliment) “So where are you from then?” Conversely, had I said “Yes, I am from Spain” she could follow-up with the same thing “I thought so! Where are you from in Spain?” or “I always wanted to visit, what is it like” or something else. Either way, it wasn’t a genuine question she wanted an answer too, but rather a conversation starter which she could win no matter the answer. She wants me to believe she is interested in me.

Now she had me stopped. I wasn’t walking anymore. At this point she could move in for the kill. I still hadn’t realized what she had accomplished yet, that came a few minutes later. I would guess there is some sort of conversation rate funnel in the kiosk business. Rarely do people just walk-up to your booth and buy stuff, but if you can slowdown or stop a moving person, then you can increase the likelihood of a sale. She had me stopped, not by my interest in her product, but because I felt the need to be kind and not to step around and ignore a human and then I felt the need to reciprocate and answer or even ask her questions.

As I stood there she asked me all these crazy facts about skin, most of which I already knew. “Did you know that 90% of your skin is dead?”, “Yup” that’s why that silly dead-flesh-eating fish crazy was so popular. “Have you heard of the Dead Sea“, “Yup” It is pretty famous since it is below sea-level and so salty that you float like a cork! “Wow, do you know where the Dead Sea is?” she asked. “Sure, it is in Israel.” I responded. “Wow, you are really smart.” Hm… I personally didn’t think the questions where very hard, but then again this is a shopping mall. Ah, a bit of gloating… wait, this is another trick, a part of her siren trap! If the questions are easy and I get them right, she can praise me and make me feel better than others and you know what, better people use Dead Sea Salt on their skin.

At this point, I still haven’t expressed any interest in the product. I have just been on my own personal game show and I was winning! An amateur salesperson might either have floundered or asked me if I was interested in the product, but she did something completely different. It was at this point I realized that everything was an act, a script, a ruse, she was going though the motions and she was good.

The next thing she did was the pièce de résistance, she reached out her hand to shake mine and say “Thanks for an interesting chat, you are pretty smart.” Of course, you reach out purely out of habit to shake back. Next think I knew, my hand was released and upturned and a small sample of Dead Sea Salt was resting in it.

Oh, she was good. 5 minutes ago I didn’t care the least for cosmetics, kiosks or the Dead Sea’s by products, but now I was standing with a pile of it in my hand rubbing it all over while its rough texture was cleansing my skin. Somewhere around this point she realized that I wasn’t going to be a sale. She had funneled me down from walking, to stopped, to chatting, to trying the sample, but couldn’t close the deal. At the point where I was washing my hands, she was already onto the next customer.

I thought to myself, Maybe she’s on commission? Maybe she’s cutting her loses? Either way, she left me quickly. After washing-up via a spray bottle (which was strange, but I guess there is no running water in a kiosk) I must admit that my hands were nice and soft.

As a sales person, I don’t think she cared about that wasted free sample. Having me stand there for 2 minutes chatting, using the product was enough for other people walking by to see. Without buying anything I was helping her selling it to others by just being there. Think to yourself the last time you tried an empty restaurant. Instead, you probably went to the one near by that was busy. It must be good. Why would there be that many people using it, if it were a bad product? This is called social proof. By standing around I made Dead Sea Salt look popular, bringing more people to the kiosk which in turn makes it seem even more popular. It’s a wicked cycle and I was contributing (unwillingly) to it.

In the end, I saw through her manipulation attempts, took the time to analyze her tactics and I’m proud of myself I wasn’t deceived. Next time someone stops you, observe their tactics, see how successful they are at convincing you, as well as watch their body language and the overall environment. You could be the customer and/or part of the act.