The Boardwalk Sales Pitch


Direct marketing is everywhere on TV today. The formula is tried and true. Offer a product to the consumer. Extoll its virtues in as many ways as possible. Establish a value that’s higher than your asking price. Surprise the consumer with a lower price. Finally, double the offer or include a freebie. It’s based on a technique that was developed on the New Jersey boardwalks in the 1950’s. In Atlantic City, the streets run right up to the boardwalk. A pitchman would park his car next to the ramp and lug a folding table up onto the boardwalk. There, he would hawk goods as diverse as combs or kitchen gadgets. At the outset, he wasn’t interested in making individual sales, though he certainly would welcome them. His intent was to gather a crowd around his stand. He acted a bit like a side show announcer. He was loud, friendly, and tried to engage passers by. Once several people stopped to watch, the real sales pitch would begin.

Offering a product. Boardwalk sales doesn’t rely on invention, but it has been an integral part of the modern boardwalk sales pitch. Ron Popeil has dozens of patents for kitchen gadgets to his name. The important part of the pitch is to present a fairly unique product that the customer will perceive can’t be bought anywhere else. This serves the dual purpose of creating interest in the sales display and keeping the customers there after they’ve become interested. Everyone loves new things and if you can’t buy it from a regular store, you’re more likely to stay and listen to the pitch. The product doesn’t have to be unique, it just has to seem unique. In the bustling atmosphere of the boardwalk, the pitchman was competing with arcades, restaurants, night clubs, casinos, and half naked tourists. That’s what made kitchen gadgets such a natural category to sell. The boardwalk can fulfill almost any immediate desire. Potential customers are already thinking about food because it’s everywhere on the boardwalk. The thought of cooking seems out of place and unique, but still related to the experiences the customers are already having.

Extolling the product’s virtues. The pitch uses a shotgun approach to sell products. Customers may only be interested in one aspect of the product, but it’s very difficult to know which one. The salesman touts as many benefits as possible in the hope of hitting upon the one that the customer likes (It chops, it slices, it dices). The clincher is the one benefit that makes the product seem unique, and will appeal to as many people as possible. On the boardwalk, it was usually the durability of the product. The pitchman would hit it with a hammer or drop it on the ground. Ginsu cut up nails and tin cans to emphasize the durability of their knives, and sold millions of sets.

Establishing a high value. This follows naturally from the product virtues phase of the pitch. Once the pitchman has established that their product is superior to others, he relies on the internal value that customers associate with that product. Generally, boardwalk products aren’t materially better than the competition. Most knives with serrated blades will cut through a nail without losing much of their edge. Hardly anyone uses their knives to cut through metal, so the demonstration makes the knife seem unique and better than the knives the customer already owns. The customer knows how much they paid for their knives, so they expect that a knife that can cut through metal will cost more. The pitchman lets that assumption hang in the air while he’s presenting the product. At the end of the benefit phase, he finally places a value on the product. He starts close to, but slightly under, the value that similar products sell for.

Surprise the customer with a lower price. At this point of the pitch, the salesman has established that his product is superior to what the customer may already have. He has also convinced the customers that he’s selling his product at a competitive price. Then he lowers the price progressively. For the customer who already thinks the product is worth more than the asking price, this discount feeds their need to get a special deal. Getting something for less than it’s worth is a universal desire. Psychologically, it makes the customer feel superior, and that’s more important than selling a superior product. Most of the products that are sold through the pitch aren’t intrinsically better than their traditional counterparts. Things like knives and kitchen gadgets have mostly been commoditized, so the design and construction quality don’t vary much from one to the next. It’s in the presentation that the pitchman establishes the value of what he’s selling. The pitchman isn’t selling his products in a retail setting with numerous overhead expenses, so he can afford to ask for a lower price.

Double the offer or include a freebie. Since the margins are greater for the pitchman than for a traditional store, he could afford to offer a two for one deal or add another product to the transaction. Usually, the free item was something that the pitchman had in his trunk that hadn’t sold well. Instead of selling a dud, he used it as an enticement for his new products. At this point in the pitch, the customer has already established in their mind that this is a good deal. The addition of something free just increases the superior feeling that the pitchman has been cultivating in his audience. The freebie should tip the customer over the edge and into a buying mood. The free item is also used to establish a group dynamic. A single sale isn’t as important to the pitchman. Since he has lowered his margins by progressively lowering the price, he has to rely on bulk sales to maximize profits from the items he’s selling. In order to drive multiple sales, he has gathered a group together, presented a desirable product, then offered it at a low price. Part of the bargain psychology is an element of competition. Watching someone buy something at a good deal isn’t as satisfying as getting that deal yourself. That’s the reason that the pitchman has created a group of people around himself instead of selling individual items. The pitch works best when the salesman is able to sell everything in his inventory. Otherwise, he’s just left with items to use as freebies in the next pitch.

The pitch is different from other types of sales in that it relies more heavily on group psychology rather than fulfilling individual needs and desires. Without a group of customers to influence each other, the lower margins would lead to lower profits. The pitch has been modified to fit into the TV format. The group dynamic is implicit in the format. There is an unconscious sense that the viewer is part of a larger group just by watching TV. Instead of relying on physical proximity, TV pitches can utilize that subconscious group dynamic as the competitive trigger. TV sales channels also add an artificial countdown to the pitch in order to coax users to buy now. That is the TV replacement for the group competition that the original boardwalk pitchmen used.

Even though it’s been modified to match new sales trends or media formats, the boardwalk sales pitch has always relied on the psychological triggers of group competition and individual superiority to drive sales. The pitch has influenced many of the sales techniques that we see every day. From single item sales using infomercials to multinational ad campaigns, the basic formula of creating value, then asking less than that perceived value, is an entrenched part of marketing.

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