Underselling, Knowingly

A half-hour delay in my flight from Heathrow recently offered me some unexpected time to browse the stores at Terminal 2. I had hoped that some Christmas gift ideas would reveal themselves to me. Somewhat selfishly, however, I ended up looking for something for myself in the men’s clothing department of John Lewis’s. I lifted a printed shirt from the rail and searched the underside for the garment label. A store assistant, recognising that I need good light to see anything these days, gestured for me to move towards him where the light was better.

“Those shirts have only just arrived,” he remarked, “but I think they’ll all be gone by tomorrow. He continued: “This style is to be worn amply, you know, comfortably. You can wear it when you go out with close friends for a late supper, or even if you plan an intimate evening at home with your wife.” Even before he reached the end of his sentence, I knew I had been hooked. Knowingly or unknowingly, his gestures and comments had transformed my perception of him, and of the shirt, into one so appealing, the only way I could hang onto it was to buy the garment.

Firstly, it was the innocent invitation for me to share his light. I perceived this as a genuine act of generosity from a stranger – one worthy of reciprocation. That the lights are there primarily for the benefit of the clients, i.e., it was MY light, didn’t play any role in this evaluation. Then, he underlined the imminent scarcity of this particular article. There is nothing we humans find more appealing than something which is short supply, or that everybody else wants. Finally, he went on to transform the cotton shirt from a product to be consumed into an experience to be enjoyed. And not just any abstract, generic experience, but a concrete, specific one. As he spoke, I could almost hear the warm bustle of the bistro where I would enjoy this late supper, and feel my wife’s cheek snuggling into my cotton-swathed chest.

The John Lewis Partnership has been justly lauded in the past for its stakeholder engagement, its customer satisfaction, and for its social responsibility. However, I do not recall having ever read anything about it exploiting cognitive psychology so effectively in its sales techniques. Perhaps it was not a learned technique at all, but part of the sales assistant’s natural demeanour. Furthermore, my failing eyesight, garment preference, and wedding ring, facilitated his choice of selfless gesture and of prospective experience (although he might have stumbled horribly with the gender of the ‘spouse’). Either way, even though I recognised in real-time exactly what he was doing, I liked it nonetheless. Hmm, the art of selling without selling. Let’s call it underselling, knowingly. Well done John Lewis.

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