The kids and I had just finished lunch when there was a knock on the door. I saw a minivan out the window, and I thought it might be a friend. I opened the door to find a well-dressed man who quickly handed me a spray bottle. “Here’s a gift for you.” Then, “Have you heard of the something something two?” I didn’t understand what he was asking.
“No,” I said.
“Perfect!” and he bolted back to the van, grabbed a large box and came running back to the door. Before I realized what was going on, he had come inside. As he slipped off his shoes and bounded up the stairs to the living room, he said that he was going to give me a free demo and that I didn’t have to buy anything. Yeah right, I thought.
This was the point where a savvier person would have told him to leave the house immediately and that there was no way he was selling anything. But I didn’t realize my critical window was closing by the second. I was still marveling that a now-stockingfooted stranger had entered my home without bothering to wait for my permission. As someone whose mother used to have to buy his whole box of fund-raising candy bars because he couldn’t face his neighbors’ gentle refusals, I partly admired his moxie, even as I was appalled by it.
After climbing right over the baby-gate at the top of the stairs, he beheld the filthiness of our home. A huge pile of laundry lay strewn about. The couch cushions and pillows were helter skelter, part of a fort or floating rocks in lava or some other grand design the kids had envisioned. He immediately started putting together his vacuum, a Kirby Sentria II (oh! that’s what he had said at first!) and asked me what kind we had. I dragged out our crappy Bissell so he could do his side-by-side demonstrations.
Right away he tried to establish commonality by asking where I was from and what my hobbies were. I could tell it was fake friendliness, but I answered his questions honestly anyway. When I told him I was from Ohio, he started talking about Columbus because he had been there before. It didn’t matter that I’ve never lived there. He wanted to know if I had ever gone to a football game at The Shoe. I haven’t. He tried another line of questioning by asking about hobbies. I told him I didn’t have a lot of free time with three kids to care for. But I allowed that I do like to read when I get a chance. He jumped on that. Told me that he had loved reading Sherlock Holmes stories and The Hobbit (long before the movies, he added), though he didn’t have a lot of time to read anymore. All I could think was that those seemed like generic books to mention. Sure, I like Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien’s stories too, but doesn’t everyone?
The kids were skittish. The 3yo kept hiding behind the curtains, occasionally peeking out and giggling. The 1yo wanted to be held the whole time, and especially when the vacuum was turned on. The salesman didn’t let their anti-social behavior stop him. He said they were cute and great. I was sure he said those things to anybody’s kids, even if they were hideous and kicking him in the shins.
Once he had the vacuum all put together, he asked me if I wanted clean floors. I answered that of course I did. What was I going to say, no, I’d like to live in filth and squalor? What kind of weirdo would say that? He proceeded to do a quick demonstration. He used our Bissell on a section of carpet, going over it 50 times. He counted each sweep for effect. I already knew that it wasn’t a very good vacuum. It picks up the visible fuzz and Cheerios, but I’ve never been impressed by its suction. Then he used his Kirby over the same stretch of carpet, but instead of using a canister or bag, he inserted these white discs that would show exactly how much dirt the vacuum was picking up. He stayed down on his hands and knees in order to keep switching out the discs as each quickly accumulated debris. Then he set them to the side until the dining room floor was covered with 30 or 40 paper discs, each displaying a generous pile of crud against its brilliant white background. It was obvious which vacuum was better. But he asked me anyway in order to make me say it out loud.
[Not the moon. One of the white discs with the rapidly falling price on it]
After he had tried to get me to like him by showing our similarity and asked me some questions so he could later hold me to my answers, his sales patter focused more on the vacuum itself. He proceeded to tell my why my Bissell didn’t work well and why his Kirby was superior in every way. But it wasn’t only my Bissell that was worthless, it was every upright vacuum that could be bought at the store. They were all terrible in the face of the all-mighty Kirby. It was unique among vacuums. I had to admit, I kind of wanted one now. But he still hadn’t told me how much they were. We’d get to that soon enough, but first he had to give me more reasons why I had to have one.
“What’s the dirtiest part of the house?” he asked next. I thought for a few seconds and had a flashback to when we moved a few years ago. Friends from church helped us with the big items, and when we picked up the bed, the dust bunnies were multitudinous and feral. “Under the bed,” I answered. He acted stunned and said I was right. Said only three people had ever gotten the question right (and I believed him and felt good about myself!). He said the bed is the dirtiest part of the house because of all of the dead skin cells we shed at night. Never mind that I hadn’t actually said the bed itself, he glossed right over that in order to give me credit. He walked down the hallway so he could demonstrate the effectiveness of the Kirby on a bed. I wasn’t about to let him into our bedroom, which was also in disarray. So I showed him to the boys’ room. He vacuumed the toddler bed and sure enough, the Kirby sucked out lots of dirt and dead skin cells from the mattress just as predicted. It was amazing! And gross! And I was pretty sure that I was never going to vacuum any of the mattresses in our house whether we had a Kirby or not!
The last part of the demonstration showcased the shampooing feature which involved more accessories and special soap. I didn’t really care. We barely manage to vacuum once in a month of Sundays. We’re never going to shampoo the carpet.
So finally it came time for the big reveal: the price. I was, of course, surprised that such a fine machine cost north of 2000 dollars. How did he ever manage to sell one of these things? But then came the discounts that I knew were coming. The first was the trade-in. He offered to take our ineffectual Bissell for an outrageous sum, more than twice what we had paid for it originally. Then he asked if I knew anyone who owned a Kirby. When I said no, he scrambled to find me another discount (only later did I find out from my mom that she had owned a Kirby once upon a time, but gave up on it because it was so heavy to lug around). He finally hit upon the fact that I have family members who have served in the military. Another $200 off! Then he found out that we wouldn’t want to finance the purchase but use cash instead. That garnered a 10% discount on top of the previous discounts. It was down to $1710. What a deal!
That’s when he made his first phone call to the “boss.” I use scare quotes because it was obvious that this was the plan all along. In fact, I suspected that this boss was actually the driver of the van, which had conveniently driven away and left him stranded at my house. He asked her how many “friends and family” discounts he had left. After he had his answer, he proceeded to offer me one of his five remaining “friends and family” discounts. He acted like he was doing me a big favor to the tune of $550 more off the price. He was on my side. He wanted me to have clean floors. It would only cost $1160. The price had come down just over 50% from where it started. How could I say no?
Somehow I said no. Couldn’t do it. We didn’t have that kind of money. That’s when he started to lay on the guilt. He brought up my earlier answers that I wanted a clean floor and that his Kirby was the better machine. How could I not buy his vacuum knowing what I knew now? It wasn’t my fault before, but now I had been enlightened. The Kirby was the only way that I was going to get all that dirt out of the carpet. How could I let my kids play on a dirty carpet? I wouldn’t put clean clothes on a dirty carpet, would I? He kept pressing the issue. I couldn’t look him in the eye when he laid on the guilt about the dirty floors. I felt kind of ashamed about all of the dirt his machine had managed to get out of the carpet.
He called his boss/accomplice again. When she asked why I didn’t want the vacuum, he told her, “He doesn’t have a reason,” after he had swatted down everything I had offered in the negative. I tried to explain that we don’t do installment plans (which is mostly true) and we didn’t have the money right now. So he pushed the installment plan anyway. Then I told him that any extra money we had was going into fixing our basement from the flood damage last year (the one exception to the ban on installment plans was getting the basement waterproofed).
One last call to the boss yielded a final offer of $1000. How could I still say no? They were being so reasonable and accommodating. I still said no. I couldn’t make financial decisions like this anyway without consulting my wife. But, he said, if your wife knew all the dirt that was in here, wouldn’t she want you to get it all? Wouldn’t she want clean floors for the kids? I mean, guy to guy, women can be pretty particular about a clean house. Boy, I thought, you do not know my wife. She doesn’t care much about a clean house. And she definitely would not want to spend $1000 on a vacuum. In fact, the nagging thought that she might kill me if I did buy it kept me from being tempted to give in just to make it all stop.
The whole ordeal took over an hour and a half. He ignored me every time I said the kids were supposed to be taking naps. As he was packing up, which he did very slowly, drawing it out so I had to say no a few more times, I finally put down the 1yo for his nap an hour later than usual. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the minivan came back to pick up the vacuum and the salesman. I was exhausted.
On the plus side, a tiny bit of our carpet was clean.
[for more on the principles of persuasion ably demonstrated by my persecutor, check out this video by researchers Cialdini and Martin]