Lessons in salesmanship

When it comes right down to it, I just can’t say no to free beer. But I almost did.

Having decided to stay home on a Friday night, I stopped to pick up a six pack on the way from the subway stop.

This was one of those mix-and-match places, where you can build a six pack out of $3 or $4 bottles and walk out $20 or $30 lighter, or you can just grab a pre-made six pack of something cheap and basic. I knew I shouldn’t be spending any money, but I figured I’d just get some lager for $8.50, one of the cheapest options there. So I quelled my guilty conscience by reasoning that going out would cost even more, so in a sense I was coming out on top.

Outside the shop, I saw a man standing with a stack of post cards in his hand. I avoided eye contact, because I was sure I didn’t want what he was selling.

“Want to save $10?” he asked, holding out a card as I tried to pass him by.

Of course, I wanted to save $10, but there must be some trick involved — there always is when it comes to strangers with postcards, isn’t there? I made a show of looking toward the card without really seeing it.

Having no idea what he was offering but pretending to see something that didn’t appeal to me, I just said, “Um. No, I don’t think so. Thanks.”

“OK,” he said, in a suit-yourself tone that suggested he had grown quite used to rejection.

I stepped inside and walked quickly toward the refrigerators.

The place was relatively crowded, and one of the employees was restocking some of the labels, so with the bodies standing around, and the doors open, and the clinking of bottles, it felt a little chaotic.

Among the dozen or so patrons, a pattern emerged, and I realized that two people were not there to shop or work. They were wearing the same t-shirt as the guy who had been standing outside.

It seemed I had escaped nothing.

The evening was growing muggy, and the shop wasn’t cool enough to stop me sweating. I felt beads of perspiration gathering across my forehead and behind my ears. And while I dug around in my gym bag for a handkerchief, I heard one of the t-shirt team say to a patron, “Hey, do you like free beer?”

It was a more desperate-sounding pitch than the one outside, and it made me even more suspicious. He explained that they were giving away $10 credits for anyone who used a smart phone app called Level Up to pay for their purchases. And if weren’t already signed up, and we downloaded it and signed up right there, he would give us a $15 credit.

I didn’t have this app. I became much more interested.

He went through his pitch points — it links with your debit card, and payment comes directly out of your account; it doesn’t cost you a thing to use, and merchants prefer it, because, unlike credit cards, it doesn’t cost them a surcharge.

So I started downloading the app. And while it loaded, I was a captive audience.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“Oh, fine,” I said. “Yours?”

“Oh,” he said, “good. Great. I love my job. You know, drinking free beer, hanging out, talking to people. And that kid out there”—the guy I sped past on my way in—”he’s a buddy—well, he’s my boss—but he was on my high school soccer team.”

He was getting awful friendly. Don’t let down your guard! I glanced down at my phone. It was hung up at 50% downloaded.

He pointed to my six pack of Yuengling.”Oh, now, see? That’s all you’re gonna get?” he said. “You could go back and almost double that for free, dude. Or get something a little … nicer?”

For a moment I was embarrassed by my unadventurous selection. I just didn’t want anything more complicated that my meager lager.

“Yeah, you know,” I said, shrugging.

“This beats the place I was at earlier today,” he continued. “Over at Chestnut and 11th Street. Right across the street from a check-cashing place and the family court building.” He gave a knowing nod. “So you can imagine it was a really sunny and cheerful place to spend a Friday afternoon.”

The app was installing now.

“Well, I was at a pizza place, actually,” he went on. “Paulie’s Pizza. It’s actually pretty nice. The food is goo—”

“Ok,” I said. “It’s downloaded.”

I launched the app, and he walked me through it, touching my phone and sliding from screen to screen, upside down from his perspective — which I couldn’t help but feel was a rather intimate almost invasive gesture.

He gave me a promo code worth $15, and just like that, I had free money. More to the point: free beer. And I wouldn’t even spend all of it. I would have a credit left over for another time.

And to think I almost passed this up out of a distrust of sales pitches and an aversion to talking to strangers. Turns out his free-beer pitch was more effective than his soccer buddy’s save-$10 pitch outside. I had half a mind to tell him they should stop scaring people with postcards and retool their strategy.

Or, given the situation I was in, maybe their strategy had actually worked … perfectly.

Ah-ha. Tricky.

He moved on to a couple of women who were standing in front of the refrigerator case thoughtfully examining some imports.

“Hi, there. I’m Vincent,” he said.

Didn’t sound like he was pitching beer anymore. Sounded like he was pitching something else, introducing himself by name and shaking their hands.

“Those accents,” he said. “Where are you two from? No, let me guess. Ukraine?”

They looked at each other and laughed. “Not even close,” one of them said.

Turns out they were from Germany. But before I could eavesdrop further, I was on to the checkout queue, where I was scanned and sent on my way, having not even touched my checking account.


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