Whatcha Got There Behind the Counter?

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 24, 2019

Jake holding the softest toys, KP Cuddle Pals. Weirdly, these sell best from a box behind the counter. More on that below.

Consumer psychology is fascinating. I’ve only dipped into books about it here and there, like Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy and Daniel Pink’s When: The Secrets of Perfect Timing, but observation in my store has taught me a few key things:
1. If it’s unavailable, it’s wanted.
The moment an item is tantalizingly out of reach, it is more desirable. Let’s say a customer comes in looking for two specific titles and plans to choose one to buy. We’ve got one on the shelf and the other is behind the counter, tagged and set aside for someone else. Guess which one the customer instantly wants? This happens 100% of the time. The psychology behind this also points to:

2. If someone else wants it, desirability zooms upward.
This is a sensible one. Validation from outside sources is always helpful when choosing among possibilities. Customers recommend books to one another all the time at the bookstore. The only problem that arises happens when two customers want the last copy of the same book. Often one will graciously accede the copy to the other—it’s a small town, after all, and a small state; everyone in Vermont is one or two degrees of separation apart—but the after-yearning is palpable. Fortunately, we can usually get another copy in the next day or two.
3. If they’re the first to see it, they want it more.
Whenever I’ve just put a brand-new sideline (non-book item) out in a display, people are delighted to learn they are the first ones to see it. The shiny newness is irresistible. You’d think this attraction would fly in the face of atavistic survival instincts, which should dictate that a known quantity is the better bet. But humans, ah, we humans are drawn to the unknown.
The appeal of the first look is especially true with #4:
4. If it’s not for sale yet, they want it most.
I can’t tell you how many greeting cards, toys, gifts, and books I’ve sold during the unpacking and receiving process. I’ll be at the side computer, scanning in stacks of new items, chatting with nearby customers, and sure enough, someone almost always wants one of them. The items themselves may not catch a customer’s eye until they hear that the items are brand-new to the store. “We just got these in” perks up the ear—most people can’t help coming over to check out whatever the new goodie is. The phrase “we haven’t even put these out yet” is pure catnip. Many’s the time I’ve had to quickly create an item ID code and add it to the computer before ringing up a sale. Once, I was unboxing a greeting card order from a favorite letterpress vendor, Saturn Press. The cards are bundled in 6’s or 12’s, and a customer was so taken with them she bought half the entire order right out of the box.
5. If it’s behind the counter, and not on the floor, it may sell best.
Once in a while, we’ll discover that an item sells best from the weirdest places. When we got our first order of those soft-as-bunnies round plush toys, Cuddle Pals, we sold four during the unpacking process. Then we put them out on display, and they seemed to become background decorations to customers rather than items to buy. I moved them back into a box beside our cash-wrap counter, and for that whole first order, I sold them out of the box. “You’ve got to feel these!” I’d say to a customer, and hand over a round fox or dragon to squish. That’s all it took. Of course the direct recommendation helped, but it still worked better from the box than from the sales floor. Possibly because there was also less chance that a toddler had managed to wrest the toy from the high shelf and drooled on it.
Another item that has sold beautifully from behind the counter is a set of alphabet cards that go along with a gorgeous book published by a Vermont author, Chris Gluck. The book is Art from Nature: ABC’s with Leaf Collage Instructions, in which every animal is created from a collage of leaves:

The book has sold really well for us since it came out last fall, and this year, the author came out with an accompanying set of cards for each alphabet animal that could be used as art for a classroom or child’s room.

Back cover of the set of alphabet cards from Art from Nature by Chris Gluck.

Apologies for the shadows on these. It’s a challenge photographing shadow-free with overhead lighting in a small space!

Chris had just dropped off an experimental four packages of the card sets, along with some example cards. She wasn’t sure if the sets would sell at a bookstore, with a list price over $20, but we are huge fans of the artwork and wanted to give them a try. The next day, before we had even put them in our system, we had a couple of teachers at the register, and one of the sample cards on the back counter caught their eye. Sure enough, two packs sold before they’d even touched the sales floor.
6. If you aren’t intending to sell it, it sells.
Instagram and Facebook also sell items, but sometimes only when you aren’t meaning to promote them. Once, we posted a photo of a teddy bear that an unknown customer had left behind and not retrieved for several days. The bear was posed with a fidget spinner. That post was very popular and ended up selling a bunch of fidget spinners (which was a nice surprise and a relief, because that was a trend that flared quickly and died even quicker).
And just the other day, we posted a photo of some page points—pretty, shaped sticky tabs to mark pages—that a visiting tourist family had purchased but left behind. We hoped they would see the post and come back before their trip ends. One of our good customers noticed the post and replied, “Ooooh! I want those, too! You got more??”
I’m taking note of this approach, but given the nature of psychology, I suspect that the minute we tried to do that on purpose, it wouldn’t work.

4 thoughts on “Whatcha Got There Behind the Counter?

  1. Cecilia

    This is why libraries will have a booktruck full of items with the label “Just returned”. There are seldom many left to be reshelved.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Aren’t they great?? We do – or (if we sold out over the weekend) can get very quickly. You can call the store between 10 and 6 to order: 802 985. 3999 (trying to fool the bots with my weird spacing). We also have Gmail for orders: flyingpigorders at the expected address. Thanks!


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