The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Sales! Are encyclopedia salesmen motivated by the sharing of knowledge? Why do so many prices end in nine? And why do people keep falling for pyramid schemes? Let’s explore some sales myths and Black Friday sales stats and facts.
Lie #1: Black Friday! Bargains! Bargains! Bargains! Bring It!
Black Friday is kind of… gross? Nothing brings out the worst in humanity like a combination of crowds, cold weather and fatigue, all in the name of saving a few bucks on a big-screen TV. According to the quite bleak site Black Friday Death Count, incidents at sales have been responsible for 12 deaths and 117 injuries. That is absolutely too many deaths and injuries to take place doing something as pedestrian as shopping, and some, if not most, of those incidents have been truly vile. To be honest, when you look at some of the footage, it’s kind of a miracle those numbers aren’t vastly higher.
The way Black Friday works is big, heavily promoted discounts on hella sexy items — TVs, consoles, laptops and the like, deals known as “doorbusters” — are sometimes sold at a loss by big stores just to get people in, at which point they lose their minds and buy all sorts of unneeded shit whether they manage to get their hands on the big sexy thing or not, because they’re all riled up and commerce-bonkers, with raging hard-ons for the very concept of shopping.
And the thing is, a lot of the other things that end up shoved into the carts of frenzied, overexcited shoppers aren’t actually that amazing in terms of bargains. An investigation by Which? found that 95 percent of discounted items were available as cheaply or cheaper from the same retailers in the six months following Black Friday, and 61 percent of them had been offered for less before Black Friday. Some product types just aren’t worth it, either. Money-saving site Cheapism suggests things like winter coats, bedding, jewelry, mattresses and toys can all be secured more cheaply at other times of year.
The novelty might just have worn off, as well. Going to actual stores to be breathed on by a bunch of unmasked bargain-hunters? Fuck that. And Jesus Christ, after this year, is anyone thinking what they need in their life is more goddamn screens?
Lie #2: “If You’re Not Paying for Something, You’re the Product”
This gets bandied about online as a bit of a warning that nothing is actually free. You may never have consciously given Facebook or Google a cent in your life, but by sharing your whole existence with them, you have in fact become a commodity, your life reduced to a series of data points to be packaged up and sold to the highest bidder. Right?
Pretty much, yes. These companies do a lot of coasting on the lack of clarity in what “selling your data” actually means. They’re not giving advertisers a big dossier they’ve made on you as an individual — the companies targeting your news feed aren’t going, “I’ve been reading a lot about this dude Gary, and it sounds like he’d really like our particular brand of toilet paper.” There’s not a big crazy wall with your name, address and picture on it — the advertisers targeting you don’t even know your name.
Google’s own words describe what they’re doing like this: “We do not sell your personal information to anyone. We use data to serve you relevant ads in Google products, on partner websites and in mobile apps. While these ads help fund our services and make them free for everyone, your personal information is not for sale.” So they don’t sell it, they just use it, and receive money in exchange for using it. Totally different!
“Personal information” is the important wording there. Technically what they’re doing is renting access to anonymized data sets. Facebook frequently claims that they don’t sell customer data to advertisers, they just make some information available to them. In exchange for money. And that’s what we sign up for when we use these things: It’s a trade-off that pretty much works for everyone, although some people make billions of dollars out of it and others just get racist updates from their cousins.
The thing is, paying for stuff doesn’t stop any of that from happening. Think about Amazon: You’ve probably spent thousands of dollars with them over the years, and it’s not like that’s stopped them advertising stuff to you — stuff that, based on analysis of your browsing and purchasing habits, they really think (or rather, the algorithm predicts) you’ll love. And if some of these happen to be sponsored products, so be it. A paid-for, ad-free Spotify account is analyzed in exactly the same way as a free one, as part of the same data set, you just don’t have to hear the ads.
There aren’t any ads on Netflix, of course, but they don’t just offer you up any old shit — their whole business is based on analyzing what their paying customers are watching and making more of the same. They don’t sell user data to third parties — not at the moment, anyway — but the way they’ve always been cagey about releasing any sort of specific figures about viewership suggests they’re well aware of the value of the extraordinary amount of data they have.
Living in the age we do, we’re in an ecosystem where our browsing, viewing and purchasing habits are endlessly documented and analyzed. Fourteen bucks a month won’t change that. Being a customer or a product isn’t a binary thing — all of us are both, and will be forever, buying and being bought again and again until the cold hand of winter comes for us all.
Lie #3: “You Ever Notice How All the Prices End in Nine? Damn, That’s Eerie”
It’s a psychological sales tactic, Dante from Clerks, you goateed dumbass. A price ending in nine is as high as it can be without shifting the prior digit up by one, and so on. $4.99 is basically five bucks, but feels like enough less that it’s worth the store keeping that cent off the price. The first digit we see casts a shadow over the rest of the price — as Robert Schindler of Rutgers University writes, “most people won’t perceive a big difference in price between a $20 item and a $25 item, but by dropping the price of each item by one cent, something that costs $19.99 is considered much less expensive compared to something priced $24.99.”
A 2005 paper in Psychology & Marketing found direct evidence of what they called “ending-digit drop-off” — less attention being paid the further into a price a customer got.
There are other benefits as well. A house listed at $299,999 will show up in a Zillow search for properties under $300,000, for instance, while it’s been suggested that in an era before good store security, clerks could easily pocket the money for a $1 product, but have to open the till to make change for a 99-cent one, creating a record of the sale and preventing them from very slightly robbing the joint.
Schindler suggests the tactic works better on some products than others, however — if you’re working on someone’s house, for instance, he recommends using a rounder figure so as not to look like you’re cutting corners and are going to do a shit job.
But most of all, Dante, behind you in that scene, none of the prices end in nine at all. Whoa.
Lie #4: “Hey, This Guy’s Selling a Nice Set of Encyclopedias!”
Back when Wikipedia, or even Encarta, were nothing but a maniac’s dream, owning a big set of encyclopedias was a real status symbol — it showed that your household was an aspirational, cerebral place where knowledge was valued and people sat around reading and being highbrow and shit. King among these was the 129-pound Encyclopaedia Britannica. When Sears, Roebuck & Co acquired the company in 1920, it transitioned from primarily being sold by mail-order to employing door-to-door salesmen. J.G. Ballard did it before becoming a writer, as did both Mike Myers’ dad and Woody Harrelson’s dad (Harrelson’s dad later becoming a hitman).
The door-to-door selling of encyclopedias, while not strictly a scam — the encyclopedias did exist, of course, and contain mostly accurate knowledge (although oddly had “incest” filed under “business and industry”) — sometimes involved the use of some fairly sketchy tactics to get households to sign up for a set, as the salesman was in line for up to a $600 commission, a hefty chunk o’change. As such, aggressive and occasionally misleading tactics were used, leading to various FTC violations in the 1970s.
Poorer neighborhoods were also targeted. Former salesman Joshua Goldstein, now a senior figure at the Center for Financial Inclusion, recalls selling a set to a poor young mother in the 1970s: “My guess is that the encyclopedia held out the promise of a bright future for her children, which would only grow brighter with the luxury binding and other enhancements that came with the premium package. She thought that the man in the suit (me) was an emissary from another, better America who would change her children’s destinies.”
Door-to-door sales peaked in 1990, with 2,000 salespeople shifting 100,000 sets, but physical sales plummeted 97 percent in the next six years, leading to the door-to-door tactic being abandoned.
Lie #5: “Ahahaha! Hahaha! No, It’s Not a Pyramid Scheme, Silly! Ahahaha! Hahaha!”
If an opportunity seems like it’s either incredible or a scam, it’s almost certainly a scam.
Franchise fraud, one of the most common types of pyramid scheme, involves recruiting salespeople (sometimes under more flattering titles like “brand representative”) to buy a bunch of products to sell. They’re also strongly incentivized to recruit other people to buy in and become salespeople themselves, and these recruits in turn are encouraged to do the same, with money going up the chain every time. The items involved are usually aspirational products related to health or beauty and primarily aimed at women — yoga pants, vitamin supplements, cosmetics and so on.
Recruiting a new person nets a seller more money than selling products, so that becomes the focus, and it keeps going until it all collapses, leaving the vast majority of people out of pocket with a garage full of unwanted shit and a bunch of pissed-off friends. The Federal Trade Commission studied 350 companies doing this, and found 100 percent of them to be “recruitment-driven and top-weighted,” i.e., barely about the products at all, and all about signing up new people to pay the hefty upfront fee and send it up the chain. It found 99 percent of people involved lost money — even worse than traditional investment-based pyramid schemes where no actual product is involved.
It’s fucking awful predatory bullshit, and is completely thriving on social media. It’s easy enough to think of this kind of stuff as only suckering in naive older people with no sense of how the internet works, but there are plenty successfully targeting younger people. Desperation is a powerful thing, more and more people are out of work and the whole thing feels close enough to the worlds of referral codes (useful!), influencer culture (sexy!) and self-made entrepreneurship (aspirational!) that people just go for it.
It’s so, so shitty. To that end, the Secret Sister “gift exchange” (an updated version of 1980s chain-letter scams) recently re-reared its ugly festive head, and will guarantee some people who could really do with a lift this holiday season instead get conned, one last kick in the teeth courtesy of 2020.