Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Price is Right: The Art of the Parisian Downsell

It was a sunny Wednesday morning in Paris’s Montorgueil pedestrian district, and a certain journalist was sitting across from her dentist. He’s the kind of doctor that women dream of: tall, dark and handsome, devoid of a ring on the fourth finger of his left hand, and boasting an office outfitted with one-of-a-kind designer furniture, plenty of contemporary art…and, of course, the latest that dental technology has to offer. With all this, one actually looks forward to the uncomfortable teeth-cleaning procedure that is supposed to take place twice a year.

But that’s the thing: clad in his impeccable lab coat, Docteur B. was explaining that, in fact, he wouldn’t need to see said journalist for another 12 months. “I know that you North Americans are taught that it’s necessary to have your teeth cleaned twice annually, but personally I find that to be a bit excessive,” he declared, professional sincerity brimming from his soulful brown eyes. “Especially in your case – your teeth are in great condition. Why pay for something that you don’t need?”

He had a point: at 60 euros a pop, a détartrage (teeth-cleaning) chez Docteur B. is hardly bargain basement. Still, for this journalist, dentist’s appointments had become almost as fun as visiting her hairdresser in the Marais. Her fantasy of illicit affairs, cinq à sept and the romantic drama that is the stuff of French movies trickling away like mouthwash down a drain, she tried another tactic: what about whitening? She often indulged in the country’s famous Bordeaux. Didn’t that have adverse effects on the color of her teeth?

Docteur B., however, was not to be deterred. A hint of humor twitching at his French lover’s lips, he revealed his own pearly whites. “You have very pretty teeth, mademoiselle, and they are already white enough. I know that where you come from, everyone has a smile like Britney Spears, but it just doesn’t look natural. Of course, it is my business to sell procedures like this, but teeth-whitening is very, very expensive. I will do it if you really want me too, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking your money for, once again, something that you don’t need.”

Leaving the office hundreds of virtual euros richer, the journalist noted that this wasn’t the first time she had encountered a common phenomenon: the Parisian downsell.

In Canada and the United States, retailers, distributors, inside salesmen and outside field reps are taught one of the goldest golden rules of unbridled capitalism: when you land a client, don’t be satisfied with selling them just what they came for. If you’ve got a live one, upsell, upsell, upsell.

The classic upsell is practiced in a number of ways: if you’re purchasing a guitar, for example, a good salesperson will also attempt to sell you a stand, strings and picks, polish to keep it shiny and maybe a book instructing you on how to play (and if you buy all of this, maybe they’ll throw in the case). Anyone who has bought anything at an electronics or appliance outlet is familiar with the extended warranty – that over-priced document promising ‘free’ service or replacement long after the item has become obsolete. Then there are the more frivolous items, where unseasoned shoppers (or those who are on a tight budget) are made to feel cheap or uncultured if they opt for a less expensive brand.

One would think that this latter strategy would be employed in Paris’s wine boutiques, where locals and tourists alike – many possessing only minimal product knowledge – congregate to purchase the country’s most famous export. For the most part, this isn’t the case, and if your caviste wrinkles his nose when you name your budget, it’s advisable to thank him politely and head to the store across the street.

“Anyone can direct a customer to a bottle of 20, 50 or even 100-euro wine and be quite sure that it is of good quality,” sniffed a Parisian as he held up his glass. “It’s much more interesting for the salesperson when the client asks for something less expensive – like, say, in the seven to 10-euro range – and demands a reasonable rapport qualité/prix.”

The downsell, the Parisian continued, doesn’t exist because French retailers are lazy or unconcerned with the state of their organization’s bottom line. Au contraire: “It presents a challenge and allows that salesperson to demonstrate how much he knows about his work. It’s likely that if you say your budget is between seven to 10 euros, he’ll propose something closer to seven.” And, when his customer enjoys that wine with their family over dinner that evening, the salesperson knows that they have gained a loyal client. “The French get offended when they’re upsold, because they feel that they are being taken advantage of,” he said. “But if someone has urged them to buy something that is less expensive, but completely correcte, they will keep going back to the store and tell all of their friends about it, too.”

Which is why, presumably, that Lavinia, a giant wine store near the Madeleine, features signs posted throughout underlining that good wine isn’t about price; it’s about winemakers that conduct their profession according to la règle de l’art.

These days, the Parisian downsell is a reassuring ritual, as everyone is trying to squeeze as much as they can out of their increasingly compromised budgets. While Parisians haven’t given up on their savoir-vivre, they appreciate when those behind the sales counter acknowledge that money doesn’t grow on trees.

“I know you like the 160-euro model, madame, but won’t you consider this jacket, which is 60 euros cheaper?” inquired a conscientious sales girl in a sporting goods store on the Left Bank. “You said that you’d never been skiing before, and I believe that this less expensive coat is more than adequate for a beginner.”

After all, she added with a wink, if madame takes a liking to winter sports, she is more than welcome to come back and purchase a second, higher-end jacket in time for ski season next year.