The vending business is not for the faint-hearted. To be a successful vendor, one needs courage, persistence, tenacity, perseverance and deep understanding of the frailty of the human condition. Nowadays, I refuse to engage a vendor if I am unwilling to buy their product but when I do allow myself to transact, I learn invaluable lessons, which they do not teach you at business school.
By Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto
Some time ago, I stopped at a fuel station to get tyre pressure and fuel. A woman who was selling apples approached me and said she had no bus fare as she had not generated any sales the whole day. She advised that it had been raining the whole day making it difficult to sell and the city police was always nearby to harass them away from the commercial business district. I told her that I already had enough apples at home and therefore was not in the market for more and proceeded to engage with another street vendor who wanted to sell me windscreen wipers after he had established that the ones on my car had worn out.
Hardly a minute later, the woman street vendor had packed six apples in a small plastic bag and through the open window of the drivers’ seat of my car, placed them on the dashboard. Louder this time, I told her again that I did not need any apples, but she replied that it was a “gift”. “Now why would a stranger give a passing motorist a gift?” I thought to myself. I took the packet of apples and tried to hand it back to her and she refused saying, “to refuse to buy my apples is fine. I can understand that perfectly. However, to also refuse my apples as a gift, given in good faith, is an insult.” She further stated that she was not willing to take the apples back home so she would rather have someone take them home as a “gift” from her.
We always need apples at home. In fact, I was planning to pass through the supermarket to do a few groceries and buy fruit for the weekend. However, I have never been one for buying food from the street corners for health reasons. There are no ablution facilities and I always wonder where they wash their hands. Besides, I did not believe that these particular apples were of great quality.
A high-pressure selling tactic masked as a freebie
I am not one for freeloading, but I soon realised that when someone forces you to receive a “gift” like that, it is very difficult to refuse. It would have been much easier if I had been able to drive away quickly after placing the packet of apples in her hands, but I was stuck because the car was still being refuelled.
The back and forth from the dashboard into her hands was becoming awkward so I felt trapped and ended up accepting the unwanted “gift”. After she had succeeded in gently placing the apples on my dashboard and declaring for the 10th time that it was a “gift”, she then gently walked away.
As it was taking forever to fill up my car, she came back after five minutes and advised me to lock up my car as there were many people loitering around who could easily open the door, grab my bag from the car and run. She moved away from me again and disappeared from my sight.
Meanwhile, I started quizzing myself why I had accepted the apples from a needy person, ekeing out a living from the street vending. All sorts of thoughts started going through my head. Why was I not firm enough? why did I not close my window and why did I not tell her that the quality of the apples is shoddy, etcetera? Why was I feeling guilty, I asked myself? I had done nothing wrong, but to receive apples I did not want from someone who had told me a sob story about not having sold anything that day because of the rain and persistent harassment from the city police which I found deplorable.
I recognised this transaction for what it was: passive-aggressive, high-pressure selling tactic. However, as the guilt was consuming me and becoming unbearable and I had lost any desire to re-engage with her in the noisy forecourt, after failing to return the “gift”, I requested the fuel attendant to call her back. I asked her how much the apples were and paid her the $3 she wanted for the six apples. She accepted the money and walked away.
Vendors have mastery in persistence and psychology
In essence, I had paid for a low-quality product I did not want so that I could ease the guilt I was feeling. At the same time I found myself admiring this woman thinking how very smart she was. Here is a woman who in a non-threatening, but firm demeanour, had used a sympathetic story and chance to make a sale.
Passive-aggression, high-pressure selling tactics and coercion to make a sale are all allowable and above-board selling methods in business. I thought to myself that with time on my side and under different circumstances, this street vendor is a woman I would have wanted to know and try to understand the logic she deploys to use this method of selling, how she identifies her buyers and so on.
It wrong to make the rebuttable assumption that a vending woman with a well-crafted sob story is needy, poor and out-of-pocket. Her being a pedestrian and yourself in a car is irrelevant. Street vending is a noble profession that has been criminalised by the city fathers. Annual turnover of street vendors in Harare alone is valued at over $2 billion.
The woman street vendor had a goal and she achieved her objective of making the sale. I parted with $3 for apples I did not like. Passive-aggressive, high-pressure selling tactics, which I have since termed “hassling marketing”, is rife among street vendors throughout the world. They know you do not have the time, so they put pressure on you and you quickly and easily give up negotiating and buy.
Here is a five-point plan for recognising and dealing with hassle marketers:
Trait one: They always tell you a sad sob story — in this case — no sales for the day, no cash for transportation back home and harassment by the city police.
Solution one: Do not engage street vendors if you have no intention of transacting with them. They are sales-focused and will play any trick to get you to part with your cash, no matter how you perceive it to be insignificant. This is their core business. They have sharpened their competencies over the years. They live this existence every day and therefore your ability to outsmart them is lower than their ability to outsmart you.
Trait two: They will not accept a “no” for an answer. in this case, after I refused her offer to sell to me, she then offered the apples as a “gift”.
Solution two: When you engage them verbally, you are most likely to lose. Engaging you in conversation is a way of building a rapport, of bonding. You bond with a street vendor at the peril of your pocket.
In most cultures on the African continent, it is impolite to refuse a “gift.” Whoever coined the phrase “there is no free lunch” knew that those who freely offer “gifts” to you always end up collecting far much more from you than the gift you received. In my case, I ended up with shoddy apples for more than the better supermarket quality which I would have bought at a lesser price.
Trait three: Do not feel sorry for street vendors or make assumptions that they are needy and poor. in this case, the mere fact that I was driving and she was a pedestrian did not put her at a disadvantage. She had to move from car to car. So vending is best done on feet. Street vending is a legitimate business and any street vendor is a businessperson.
Solution three: There is no basis for believing all their sad stories. These are marketing gimmicks and strategic postures to make a sale. Recognise that the whole bonding exercise, the chit-chatting about nothing at the beginning is meant to make you feel sorry for them. It’s a selling tactic practised and a competency sharpened over time.
Trait four: Often they play on your ego. They create the perception that you are better than them and therefore in a better position to help, by buying. In essence they are using passive-aggressive and high-pressure selling tactics to bulldoze you into making the purchase. Their own egos are minimised and they maximise your own ego. When you have got delusions of grandeur, you fall for it. They are determined and therefore will not let you leave before making the purchase.
Solution four: The deeper you engage in conversation, the deeper you are falling and the likelihood that you will end up making the purchase. Manage your own ego and walk or drive away. Recognise that this is not a popularity contest.
Trait five: Hassle marketers can be extremely nice and good-natured. Remember how the vendor came back to tell me that I needed to lock my car because of too many people loitering around when in fact she was a loiterer herself? Demonstrating kindness and caring is part of the bigger agenda of making the sale. Hassle marketers are master psychologists.
Solution five: Just do not fall for the kindness and niceness. Walk or drive away and refrain from further conversation. Do not worry that you are being rude. It is okay to be firm and assertive; after all, it is your hard-earned money you are going to part with no matter how little it might seem. Only engage with street vendors in long conversations if you have the intention of buying.
l Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and a regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org