Marketing Lessons From A Beach Hawker

• May 18, 2011 • Comments (0)

beach Marketing Lessons From A Beach HawkerDo you ever have difficulty leaving work behind?

For home business owners, this is a particularly difficult challenge because you’re never more than a few yards away from the office. At the end of a work day, resisting the urge to go back to the PC and ‘just check one quick thing’ takes a steely determination. Alongside that, as a home business owner, you’re probably doing something that you love and are deeply passionate about. It’s hard to switch off from that, as I was reminded while on vacation last year.

My wife and I had arranged a two-week trip to the Dominican Republic that, along with Haiti, makes up the island of Hispaniola. It’s a little more commercial than it used to be, but it’s still a beautiful country, and is probably one of the most cost-effective ways to visit the Caribbean.

Before we began our journey I agreed, for the duration of the holiday, I would not send or receive any emails and I would absolutely, under no circumstances ring the office. Short of a natural disaster or asteroid strike, any problems with the business could wait until we returned home. This was an opportunity to relax and recharge the batteries. The Beach, some sun, a good book and as much Cuba Libre as I could drink. I lasted, ooh… about 12 hours.

We were attending the obligatory welcome speech from the local travel rep and she was pitching a variety of excursions such as humpback whale spotting, catamaran trips, scuba-diving, and so on. With an embarrassing display of mental arrogance, I whiled away the time by picking holes in her sales technique and thinking up some of the ways she could improve her pitch.

Things such as sharing testimonials from previous customers, or adding value to the offer by offering a free bottle of premium rum as a bonus. The low cost of alcohol over there compared to the high price of the excursions would have made this very cost-effective. She could even add a sense of urgency to the offer by offering 50% off a second booking for the first five people that registered for an excursion before the end of the day.

As we left the presentation, I tried to impress my wife by sharing my critique of the travel rep’s sales pitch. I’m sure she found it absolutely fascinating but, little did I know, my wife was about to observe me taken down a peg or two. We set off on the short walk to the beach. I was in good spirits, so I didn’t mind that the moment we left the hotel premises we were stopped by a man who wanted us to attend a presentation for a rival hotel. He was quite persistent so, rather weakly, I said we’d think about it and maybe come back after lunch. Thirty seconds later we were stopped by a second man who made an identical pitch for the same presentation. This time it was much easier to refuse by saying we had already been approached a few moments ago. As we walked on I found myself, once again, mentally criticizing their sales technique. Surely, they would have more success if they offered some kind of incentive for attending?

Only fifty yards left to the beach and we were interrupted by a third man with, you guessed it, an invitation to attend a hotel presentation (lest I give you the wrong impression of the Dominican Republic, this was the only time during our entire stay that we were approached in this way). We used our now tried and trusted technique of explaining that we had already been approached. The man looked despondent and said “Ah, yes, he’s my boss”. Unsure of what the appropriate response was, I asked if the man was a good boss. “No. He steals my commissions,” came the reply. Any hopes that he might be joking were dashed by the mournful expression on his face. Somewhat uncomfortably, we said ‘adios’ and walked on.

With an air of relief we arrived at the beach, found a nice spot and lounged on a pair of sun beds. The weather was perfect and the faint sound of reggae music from a nearby resort blended well with the sound of the waves kissing the white sand. Perfect. Looking around to take in my surroundings I observed with interest the variety of beach hawkers who slowly strolled across the beach, attempting to pedal their wares. Stuffed animals, hair braiding, jewellery, cigars and, yet more excursions were all available for purchase from the comfort of your seat.

The beach was primarily used by holiday-makers staying in the resort, and I suspected that there were specific instructions on acceptable selling behaviour. None of the sellers were pushy, or aggressive, and a simple shake of a head was enough to signal your disinterest. In fact, as long as we avoided eye contact, the hawkers kept on walking.

Once more, I found myself amused by the selling techniques on display. Some simply walked with their product held aloft and waited for someone to show interest. Some, with muted tones, periodically announced the product they were selling. My personal favourite was the man selling straw hats. Wearing his entire stock, stacked high upon his head, he wandered up and down with intermittent calls of “I got the hats”.

These simplistic, but entertaining, techniques led to an overconfidence that caused me to unintentionally make eye contact with a man selling canvas paintings. He veered in my direction and with the, now familiar, half Spanish, half American accent said, “Would you like to buy a painting? You would be my first sale today.”

I wasn’t impressed with the plea for compassion, but he had a friendly smile and so, rather than saying ‘no’, I tried something a little pithier: “We wouldn’t have room in our suitcase.” I tried. The man’s smile grew broader, roughly in proportion to my growing conviction that I had said the wrong thing. He quickly pulled a tightly rolled canvas from his backpack and demonstrated how it was kept wrapped with tape that could be removed without causing any damage, and how the package could be rolled and unrolled without damaging the painting. With my objection effortlessly defeated, I racked my brains to think of another means of escape. ‘I’m not interested’ suddenly seemed a little inappropriate.

The thought had barely powered through the synapses of my brain before, as quick as a flash, the not-so-amateur salesman pulled half a dozen canvases from his stock, unrolled them, and laid them out on the sand before me. As I gazed over an expanse of brightly coloured, sea view abstracts, the thought entered my head that it really wouldn’t hurt to buy just one…

Which was immediately followed by the realisation that something strange had just happened.

I have no interest in art, no interest in paintings, and the last thing I wanted to do was blow a portion of our spending money before we were even halfway through our first day of vacation. How did I get here? How did I go from ZERO interest, to the point where I was about to start fishing around for my wallet? Then it hit me. I recalled reading the book “Influence” – Robert Cialdini’s seminal work on sales psychology – and its description of the law of Reciprocation.

The short explanation of this is that when somebody does something for us, we feel a strong, socially ingrained, desire to return the favour. Samples, downselling, and free gifts are all examples of Reciprocation in marketing. Even if the opportunity to reciprocate is out of proportion to the initial favour we’ve received, it can be hard to pass up. And, crucially, it doesn’t matter one jot if we didn’t ask for the favour in the first place.

So, in this instance, the beach hawker had gone to the trouble of showing me his product and then laying out a sampling of his paintings for me to see. The fact that it took him all of ten seconds and a minimal amount of effort made no difference. On a subconscious level, I had decided that he had done something for me and to turn him away empty-handed now would just seem rude. Unfortunately for me, awareness of what was happening internally wasn’t making it any easier to say ‘no’. I now realized that the law of Commitment had also come into play. However small the amount, I had expressed what could be interpreted as interest, so to now do a complete 180 and turn the man away would make me look silly. Did I really have the gumption to say “no” and then endure the sight of this man mournfully gathering up his paintings and then, no doubt, slowly rolling them away into his backpack? I could already envision the glares of my fellow holiday-makers. What kind of man would string along a humble beach hawker, raising his hopes of a sale, only to dash them back down to the ground?

During this tortuous but nonetheless interesting, internal monologue, the number of paintings on display had doubled; clearly, procrastinating wasn’t going to help. I made a feeble attempt to step round the problem by complaining that this was the first day of our vacation. Perhaps he could come back and see us on another day? The beach hawker – who I later learned was called Raúl – didn’t miss a beat. He told me it was fine to decide now and in fact, if I purchased a painting today, he would make me a special deal. I rocked under the double-whammy of psychological sales pressure. He was going to give us a special price (another favour, so Reciprocation again), but we had to act today (Scarcity).
This was too much. I steeled myself, summoned up all my will and prepared myself to deliver a determined refusal. But, just then, I noticed my wife – who is a keen art enthusiast – studying the works on display with open admiration. By sheer luck (maybe), Raúl had brought the power of Authority and Social Proof into play.

Authority in a sales context is about giving credibility to a product by demonstrating an endorsement by an expert. In this instance, compared to my philistine sensibilities, my spouse was a bona fide expert who could judge the paintings to be of exceptional quality, and let’s face it; when it comes to influence, there are few sources of Social Proof that can carry more weight than the longing gaze of my wife. Sensing victory, Raúl explained that this was a family business; his brothers painted the pictures, and he sold them on the beach.

This was a subtle display of the law of Liking, transforming him from a wily and calculating salesman, into a hard-working family man, who was merely trying to put food on the table. I surrendered to the inevitable, graciously acknowledging defeat, and asked my wife to pick the one she wanted.

The big-hearted Raúl was magnanimous in victory, but that didn’t mean he was going to show any mercy. When I asked the price he said the paintings were 1,300 pesos ($37) each. But… if my wife managed to find two paintings that she liked we could have them both for just 2,100 pesos ($59). Having used every element of sales psychology in the book, this man, who was clearly a seasoned marketing expert, was now casually making an Upsell offer and seizing the opportunity to add more than 50% to the amount we were being asked to spend.

One look at the gleam in my wife’s eyes and I accepted that there was little point in objecting, but that was when I realized that I still had a chance to redeem myself, a final chance to salvage some dignity and self-respect. Now it was time to haggle!

In the Dominican Republic, negotiating over the price is not only acceptable, it’s virtually mandatory. Bartering a good price for a purchase or service can be done just about anywhere. If you’ve got the guts to do it, even the duty-free shops at the airport will let you haggle their prices down. I judged that two paintings was a good sale for this man and he wasn’t going to let go of it easily. If I could wrangle a lower price I could, at least, have the last word in this exchange.

My view of haggling is fairly conservative. I have no qualms about trying to get a better price, but I’m mindful that the starting price is still a fraction of what I would pay at home. In the Dominican Republic the average annual income is less than $10,000 so I had no intention of haggling all of this man’s profit margins away. I decided that, without too much difficulty, I should be able to get him down to 1,600 pesos ($45) for the set. It meant a saving of $14 for me and it should still represent a tidy profit for him.

I pondered my opening offer as I fumbled for my wallet, only to discover that I only had 1,500 ($42) pesos with me. I didn’t really want to trek back to my room to fetch some more, but then it occurred to me that this would simply make the haggling easier. All I had to do was show the man that this was all the money I had, so I wouldn’t be able to pay anything above that. 1,500 pesos would still be a good win for him and I didn’t think for a moment that he’d back out of the sale now.

Displaying the full contents of my wallet, I mournfully declared that I didn’t have enough money to buy both paintings; 1,500 pesos was the best I could manage. The man smiled warmly and delivered the coup de grâce. Scooping the money into his hands he told me not to worry about it. He would take the 1,500 pesos now and I could bring the remaining 600 pesos, the next time I came down to the beach. After all, this was only the first day of our vacation…


The lesson of this story is not to become overconfident and think that when it comes to effective marketing, there is nothing more for you to learn. There is a big difference between theory and application and the latter is often far more instructive. It’s also worth remembering not to underestimate the power of sales psychology and the laws of influence. Even with full awareness of what they are and the authority they exert, we still succumb to their power on a regular basis.

If you haven’t already done so, get hold of a copy of Robert Cialdini’s book: “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. It is as entertaining as it is educational and you can pick it up from an Amazon seller for less than $10.

In case you were wondering, I found my new marketing guru at the top of the beach a couple of days later. He had a large display of paintings laid out upon the sand and he greeted me warmly, enquiring as to my wife’s health. I gave him the outstanding 600 pesos and, after a brief hesitation, I gave him another 1,000. I wanted to explain that it was payment for the lesson in selling but instead I told him that my wife was thrilled with the paintings and that if she’s happy, then I’m happy. Which is true.

Raúl threw his arms around me and looked for a moment like he was about to cry. Then he brightened and insisted that I accept a gift for my wife. He went over to his collection of paintings and picked out a small, ready to hang, painting that he said would complement the ones we’d purchased previously. It was a moving gesture… Not to mention a good lesson in the value of Over Delivering.

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Category: Articles, Authority, Influence, Liking, Reciprocation, Scarcity, Social Proof, Upsell

About the Author

David Congreave began working online in 2001. He is now an SEO and Internet marketing consultant, a writer, and an editor. He lives and works in Leeds, UK with his wife, Leanne.

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