3 sales techniques I learned at a school market day

Behavioural economics, persuasive design: I knew the theory, but could I put it into practice at my daughter’s ‘Cake and Candy day’?

Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling upon Happiness are two of the best books about using the quirks of the human brain to help you market and sell. We always keep these basic ideas in mind when designing websites and social networks. But there’s nothing like the evidence of your own eyes to ram home a concept. So when it was ‘Grade One’s’ turn to host the school Cake & Candy day, and my daughter wanted to run a stall, I agreed to join in – and subvert things a little.

I used three ideas from behavioural economics to make a successful market stall:

  • Make sure your product fulfils a customer need
  • You can’t go wrong with a killer product. For market day, we thought about our audience – boys and girls between the ages of six and 13. What might they like to buy on the one day of term they get to run around the school in civvies, hepped up on sugar? We settled on selling fake moustaches.

    Even at a premium price of R3 per moustache, we sold out within five minutes. And our product went viral — after seeing their friends sporting facial hair, kids kept coming to our stall all morning in search of a snor. We could have sold a fake moustache to every kid in the school if we’d had enough stock.

    The important lesson here is that, if we’d asked the kids what they’d like to buy on ‘Cake and Candy’ day, none of them would have said “a fake moustache”. Innovation rarely comes from asking customers what they want. It comes from observing customer behaviour, and identifying needs. In this case, the need for kids to go wild on civvies day.

  • Give customers a particular kind of choice
  • Humans find it hard to make choices, but if you know how they make those choices, you can achieve amazing sales results.

    On market day, I zoned in on the fact that people find it easier to make a choice when they are comparing things that are similar but slightly different. In fact, when presented with an easy choice, people are more likely to make a purchase just because the choice was easy – even if they hadn’t really intended to buy something.

    We put this idea into practice by offering for sale ordinary popcorn, and ‘popcorn with a surprise inside’. (The surprise was a jelly snake hidden in the middle of the popcorn.) Both items were priced at R2. We also sold fizzers for R1 each.

    So the kids had a choice between three items: two kinds of popcorn, and fizzers. Kids were coming to our stall looking for fake moustaches, and leaving with surprise popcorn – simply because we were offering them an easy choice between two kinds of popcorn. Completely irrational, but this is how human brains work.

  • Use the power of FREE
  • Dan Ariely’s research on what he calls ‘the power of FREE’ makes for amusing reading. When our market stall started running out of stock (all the moustaches and surprise popcorn sold out), I used the power of FREE as my final sales technique. I offered ordinary popcorn at the same price as before, but now I threw in a FREE fizzer.

    Just about every other stall at market day was selling popcorn. Kids were walking past without a second glance. But the minute they heard they could get a FREE fizzer with our popcorn, the popcorn suddenly became interesting. Isn’t that amazing? Kids who hadn’t been interested in popcorn at all, were suddenly buying popcorn upon hearing that magical word, FREE.

    I saw other parents walking away from school that day with bin bags full of unsold popcorn. We sold every single bag of popcorn on our table. It was a powerful reminder that human behaviour is pretty predictable, whether you’re six years old, or 60. You just have to know how humans tick when it comes to decision-making.



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