October 27, 2019 Reading Time: 4 minutes

I walked away from the farmer’s market fish table carrying four whole fresh sea bass, and I was extremely happy about it. Tonight they will be roasted and devoured. 

It almost didn’t happen. I was resisting buying them, for far too long. It took a fantastic salesman to make it happen, not so much by convincing me but rather by presuming the sale by subtly turning the obligation to decline the purchase back on me, who by now had lost all resistance. It was a tiny slice of psychological magic  – a Jedi mind trick – and I’m very grateful for it. 

Here’s how it went down. 

I always look forward to visiting this seafood table, owned by a real fisherman, and seeing all the glorious things that the sea raises up to feed me. So many wonderful things, these clams, mussels, scallops, red tuna, skate, halibut, salmon, octopus. I love them all. It gets confusing which to buy because I want to put the whole table in a stew and eat it forever. 

Incidentally, this fish is probably one third more expensive than it is at the grocery store. I know that. The man behind the table knows that. Is it better? Probably but I can’t say for sure. Mostly, I think the premium is for the charm of knowing the owner, seeing the small batches, poking around the farmers market and feeling as if we are getting away from the mass machinery of modern food distribution. 

Still, he is aware that there are options to what he offers, so he is always prepared to give that extra little push. 

The sea bass looked good but there were only four and I wasn’t sure that would be enough for the group. I was thinking out loud. Considering. Looking at them. Musing about their size. One pound each, so perhaps as much as a half pound of eating in each, and I was going through the list in my head, and muttered something about how this might be just enough. 

“Sold!” he suddenly said, as he took out a bag and started putting them in. I gave him my card and he thanked me and I walked away extremely proud of my new acquisition but also slightly confused: I don’t think I ever said, ok I’ll take those four fish. He knew I wanted them but was resisting. I needed him to push past that little bump in my brain and become the precipitating factor in having me realize my actual preferences. 

Thus is the value of the salesman: improving our lives by helping us to be braver and bolder than we might be on our own. 

Now, this is extremely interesting to me because it flips the usual narrative. It’s common, and it’s been this way for decades, that intellectuals presume that capitalist advertising and sales are creating fake wants and tricking us into parting with our money and doing bad things to ourselves as a result. In this story, the salesman is always the bad guy. The consumer is the powerless victim, manipulated by sensory stimulation into doing irrational things. The presumption here is that people are only rational when they buy only what they need at the lowest possible price – need as defined by intellectuals of course. 

In markets, capitalists are forever “phishing for phools,” in the words of George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller who took home the Nobel prize for their point that:

As long as there is profit to be made, sellers will systematically exploit our psychological weaknesses and our ignorance through manipulation and deception. Rather than being essentially benign and always creating the greater good, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps and will “phish” us as “phools.”

We could just as easily tell that conventional story in a different way. Consumers are reluctant to part with their money, even when it means gaining something that they really want. We need explanation. We need persuasion. We need someone outside our own brains to give us that extra push so that we can get what we really want and be happy. 

But, truly, talk about a subtle art. No one wants to feel manipulated. No one likes the “pushy” salesman. Everyone has a different breaking point. The good salesman figures it out based on the individual case. There is no training program or book that shows you how to do this. You have to develop the capacity for quick empathy and insight based on any number of clues: dress, demeanor, level of interest, particular circumstances of time and place. 

The salesman also has to know his industry extremely well, and has to love pushing product. Generalized sales skills are more rare than people think. I, for example, was very good at this in the clothing business but terrible at it in the furniture business. 

A friend of mine is a waiter at a high-end restaurant and he describes what it is like to approach a table and within seconds discern as much about the scene as possible, in order that he can make the right kind of connection with the consumer, suggest just the right foods, upsell in ways that they don’t notice, recommend just the right wine in the right price range. You have to extract every clue and convert it into a meaningful path for action. 

What is the result? A glorious evening at the restaurant! Without just the right waiter/salesman, this might not have happened. The customer in isolation might default to the usual boring fare (the hamburger) and thereby not have a memorable time. With the right food and expense, the dinner becomes a beautiful memory to cherish. This is also how you gain repeat customers. 

My grandfather was in the wholesale grocery business. I used to marvel as his social skills. He could talk with anyone and be charming and engaging. Where did he get these mad skills? It came from decades of dealing with a huge diversity of people. He learned what to do and what not to do. Mostly he learned to size up situations perfectly and find just the right way to get people what they want in an exchange in which everyone wins. 

This morning at the farmers market, was I fished for a fool? I don’t think so. The salesman is the empathetic agent of change that helps us overcome our psychological reticence to part with our property in order to gain something that will genuinely improve our subjective well-being. He should be considered a benefactor. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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