Behavioral psychology and buying a warranty at Menards

by jwhendy2 min read15th Nov 201138 comments

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Dark ArtsMarketing
Personal Blog

I just returned from buying a multimeter at Menards and wanted to post my thoughts while they were still fresh. I hardly ever have the need to use a multimeter. In diagnosing my non-heating microwave, I fried my 2-3 year old meter (don't ask) and went out for another to finish the job. I had many choices. I essentially went with the best of the lowest tier: $14. The next options were $35 and then $55.

I got to the checkout register and was waiting at the end of the conveyor belt ready to swipe my card when the cashier came over to me, stood very close, and in an almost confiding sort of hushed tone, said something like so: "With anything fragile like this, electronics and other things, you want to be careful. Check it out. Make sure it looks good and works. If it doesn't you just bring it back within a year and we'll replace it, no questions asked. Just two ninety seven."

Now, I believe as he said that last part, he was kind of walking back toward the register and I almost reflexively said, "Okay."

Once that word was uttered and I saw him then start doing something with the register, the words I heard all of the sudden registered. I recall thinking, "Oh! He was selling me a warranty of some sort." I grimaced internally but didn't speak up about it.

On my way out of the store, I was angry with myself and feeling very stupid. I wanted a cheap multi-meter. My $14 was now $18 after tax. Using it once or twice a year and then having it sit pristinely in my tool box isn't even worth the $3 insurance policy, especially since it was so cheap to begin with. I tried to catch myself and stop being angry; I thought, "No, let's learn from this situation rather than just feeling stupid. What in the world happened back there?"

Here's what I noticed about the interaction:

  • There was a sense of trust built just in him approaching me so closely
  • The affirmative and hushed tone conveyed both that he was something of an expert and that he was looking out for me, almost as if doing so against the wishes of "The Store."
  • The lack of the use of a currency value ("two ninety seven"), saying it as he walked away, and not using the word "warranty" kept me from registering that all of that walkthrough was really about a warranty. I was also just a little off guard in general, as it just never occurred that he would have any reason to approach me. 
  • Though confused in following his instructions, it felt like standard social protocol to reply in the affirmative ("Okay")
  • Once I realized I'd definitely not understood, I felt too foolish to renege, and the low cost of staying with the default didn't help that impulse
What did I learn?
  • I had a low probability estimate that this gentleman was working for his best interests (to sell me extra stuff), and, conversely, too high of an estimate that he was trying to help me as a fellow human by his seemingly secretive, buddy-buddy approach. Fix that.
  • I chose to look good (seem like I understood) and feel bad (be regretful) rather than look good (be an affirmative, confident customer) and feel good (reject a poor investment of $3 and know it). Trying to look good for a salesman is not a worthy trade for feeling swindled and regretful.
I mainly thought it was quite interesting to try and recall how all that happened. It felt like it took place within microseconds, and just blew my mind as to how unsuspecting I'd been. I thought it better to try and recall the details I could and post it here rather than just regret not doing things better.
Feel free to offer feedback or other anecdotes like this.
I'm still unsure as to whether that "just happened," or whether the salesman knew that his approach was more likely to be successful in selling me a warranty.

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My default response to any question at the cash register is, "No, thank you." That way, if I have to correct, it's in a positive direction, and it seems to work for every question possible. ("Could I have your zip code?" "No, thank you." "... Okay, here's your receipt.")

Wow, it really does work with readily available scenarios:

  • "Do you want to supersize it?"
  • "Would you like a drink with that?"
  • "Add the supplementary electronics plan for $13.97?"
  • "Paper or plastic?"

(I try to remember to bring my own reusable bag.) Not sure about "Receipt with you or in the bag?"

A very simple fix that, as False_Solace points out, is perhaps mostly applicable for these types of buying situations. Reduce chance of error/regret while only marginally increasing the need to correct. Thanks for sharing!

I'm still unsure as to whether that "just happened," or whether the salesman knew that his approach was more likely to be successful in selling me a warranty.

I'd assign higher probability to the latter, given that he was quite effective at selling you a warranty.

I'd assign higher probability to the latter, given that he was quite effective at selling you a warranty.

I would also go with the latter, given that the situation appears framed such that the salesman had arranged the matter such that he could assume compliance/agreement rather than having to specifically acquire it. That's a high-pressure sales tactic and it's a classic.

Hard stuff like this happen to me when getting a gym membership (expensive!) and in a number of other cases where the salesperson bring up a set of reasonable claims (but of course highly biased and selected) in a friendly manner to get me into the agreeing frame before pressuring for a sale.

I find it helps to have defined the requirements before talking to any sales person, if not build up reflexive response to sales people and not attempt to update with likely highly incorrect, biased and difficult to process information in time sensitive communications. It also makes sense to pay more attention in non-routine purchases since the sales tactics is not inoculated against and make take more thought.

I have a similar anecdote in which the manipulation was completely unintentional. As a teenager, I was home alone in my parents' house when a woman rang the front doorbell. When I answered it she brusquely invited herself inside, acting as though she had every right to come in and that of course I would know that. I can't fully reconstruct what I was feeling but I guess I was flustered and intimidated. She entered, then announced that she'd be taking a tour of the house. She proceeded to wander through every room, commenting occasionally, then thanked me and let herself out. I was stunned--both concerned over what had just happened, and mortified that I had just let it happen. As it turned out, she was a real estate agent who was supposed to be assessing my neighbor's house and got the wrong address. Her air of absolute confidence that she was allowed to do this and that she was in too much of a hurry to confirm that she had permission was unfeigned.

Yes! That's the exact feeling. 1) Getting a bit shocked out of your element, 2) The confidence leading you to follow along and then 3) Puzzlement as well as not even quite understanding what just happened.

Indeed he was! The experience was really shocking to myself; I hope to gain increased awareness of such approaches/situations. Hopefully a decrease in sensitivity to perceived humiliation as well.

A small, but common related occurrence:

When you are checking out at a grocery store, or sometimes at fast food joints, they'll ask you to donate $1 to charity. Of course it is some sub-optimal charity, but the looming discomfort of saying no factors in far more than it should. Plus, it is really hard to tell some random person "sorry, but the utilon-to-dollar ratio is insufficient".

It seems to generalize to a category of 1-of things that arise in social situations. You know it is sub-optimal to along, you know it would be uncomfortable to speak up, but (at least personally) you find it difficult to gauge the actual cost of doing so (in socialons), and wonder if you aren't just overthinking the whole thing - by which point, of course, the decision is already in motion.

I usually respond "No thank you, not today". Adding "not today" reminds me that I contribute to charity on many other days, and I pick those organizations more carefully.

Unless the donation is expected as part of a cultural tradition just say "No Thank You" and keep walking. It really isn't that hard and they probably wont respond unfavorably.

socialons

Useful idea and term. Thank you.

Plus, it is really hard to tell some random person "sorry, but the utilon-to-dollar ratio is insufficient".

While I'm curious as to how the results would turn out, I have strong suspicions already -- but I wonder how people would react if instead of asking for your donation, they arranged matters such that they could assume you would donate: i.e.; 'do you require us to not contribute one dollar in your name to so-and-so organization?'

Why I'm curious: I wonder how those of us who have learned the language of 'utilon-to-dollar ratio' would react in a functionally equivalent situation that required active denial rather than active compliance.

'do you require us to not contribute one dollar in your name to so-and-so organization?'

This makes it sound as if they will just keep the dollar if you say no. If what you mean is "do you want to opt out of a $1 extra charge for charity" then I probably wouldn't figure it out in time if I was in a hurry. Otherwise I'd be able to say "no thank you".

When I pay my mandatory dues to the Bar Association, the final total on the form includes a donation to the public relations fund. That is, the mandatory dues are ~$300 and total you are told to write on the check if you don't mess with anything on the form is ~$400.

I always have written the check for ~$300, but it doesn't bother me that much that they ask the other way. I think the public relations fund is probably a decent value for the utility it provides (if I could afford to donate at all).

Since you realised that the guy was selling you a warranty rather than engaging in conversation before you'd actually paid, it should have been easier then to tell him you did not in fact want a warranty. The longer you leave some things, the harder they are to undo/prevent.

I have been scammed in the past and decided that I should get the most value from the event as a lesson. Hopefully, my increased suspicion of the motives of others has been a good thing for me.

Considering this kind of arbitrary self-consistency is often undesirable, it might be worth it to train yourself to deliberately and publicly reneg on snap judgements. Think of it as a security patch. You may also find that your social status does not take the hit you think it will, even if you leave a long time before announcing you've changed your mind.

Yes -- indeed. It definitely should have been easier since I had not swiped my card. I agree that the longer I deliberated (this was like split seconds, though it felt like a long time), the more foolish it seemed to retract my "Okay." It didn't help that I was deep in thought about how to continue my testing when I got home. I was really not very aware of the task at hand.

One of my ongoing mental projects: is there a sensation of being induced into an emotional state, or having a response elicited from me, which under neutral circumstances or in retrospect I would not be happy about? If so, can I train myself to notice this sensation and respond in real time?

Alternatively, how do I notice when people are fleecing me for trivial amounts of money, so I don't feel like a chump afterwards?

I have an especially distressing example of this from a year ago, when I was approached after dark by a homeless woman asking me for money. In spite of saying no about half a dozen times, in the end I still found myself handing over a bunch of spare change. I should point out that I'm no stranger to interacting with beggars and homeless people, but the exchange was so unlike how I expect those interactions to go, I simply wasn't equipped to deal with it.

In retrospect I can recognise some reasonably sophisticated Dark Arts in play: she spun an obviously false but highly confusing story about her situation, which created a sense of urgency, and managed to combine a very aggressive conversational tone while still portraying herself as a victim. The result was me feeling placed in an unprecedentedly distressing situation where the path of least resistance was to hand over an inconsequential amount of money and feel like the aforementioned chump afterwards.

Unfortunately I'm not exposed to aggressively devious beggars on a regular enough basis to gauge how well I'd now respond to similar situations.

Alternatively, how do I notice when people are fleecing me for trivial amounts of money, so I don't feel like a chump afterwards?

Absolutely perfect wording. My same thought at the register was that $2.97 was hardly worth fussing over. When my mental playback set in on the way out the door and to my car, my emotions/self-image begged to differ.

I'm pretty sure the feeling of being a chump (for me at least) is a social response to someone having gotten more out of you than you needed to give them, rather than a response to being unhappy with the exchange.

I sometimes get it when I retrospectively discover I paid more for something than I needed to, but it's at its strongest when there's an actual agent involved who I can point to and say "you, you took more money from me than you needed to, you scoundrel!" If I buy something online, when I could've gotten it somewhat cheaper on a different site, I just shrug it off.

Maybe people with skills like that are less likely to become beggars.

On the other hand, beggars are clearly rewarded for developing such skills.

Most people aren't very entrepreneurial.

Also, that style of successful begging involves increasing the risk of annoying people and getting nothing while you're learning.

When I moved to a larger city with a larger homeless/begging/random street solicitor population, it took me a while to learn the methods of avoidance. I usually like to smile and look people in the eyes when I walk around (at least on a good day) but I find that solicitors---who are looking for that brief emotional connection, are much harder to turn down if I meet their face directly. It took me multiple times of feeling bad before I was able to overcome giving money/listening to somebody's life story/religious ideas. Now I have crowd-scanning-Mormon-avoidance paths similar to most other people.

I found that many street beggars have a story, and if you give it any thought at all it doesn't make any sense. I now have a 'say no first' policy and I figure that if I ever want to run after someone and hear what they have to say they won't mind.

I sometimes have to tell clerks at GameStop that I don't want the extended warranty, or they'll try to charge me for it without asking me first.

I wonder what sort of dangerous things you can do to a multimeter within the year... Probably not a lot, come to think of it.

I wonder what sort of dangerous things you can do to a multimeter within the year...

I don't know... given an entire year I'm sure I could get pretty inventive. Already I'm wondering how one could integrete a multimeter into a plasma-arc speaker for 'audio-dubbing' effects...

Do you expect to behave differently in similar situations in the future?

Yes. This left quite the impression. At the very least, I plan to speak up next time rather than think it won't matter. That's what I did this time, and it clearly did matter.

working for his best interests

Maybe short term interest. I don't know what Menards is, but there would need to be some really good reason to get me back in that store again. (Note, I am pretty Aspie so am easily befuddled in many social situations, and have found the only workable strategy for me is to avoid situations where others are likely to manipulate me like that. Maybe someone more neurotypical could avoid walking into things like that if they knew it was likely coming.)

What would bring me back in to that store? $14 multimeters, for one thing. I still shop at Sears, although a LOT less than I used to. Their prices on appliances can be very low. Their service sucks. To save a few hundred dollars of after tax money I am willing to spend a few hours more than a smoother more expensive transaction somewhere else.

As to the warranties, I think in a similar situation I would have let him ring it up and then feigned shock and anger when I saw my bill and demanded he call a supervisor over to the register. Once screwed like that my equilibrium is shattered and my entertainment value comes from screwing these people back. A public display of outrage at unasked for charges will probably moderate how both this cashier and her supervisor behave in the future. In any case, it will be a satisfying display for me, especially if there are other customers listening.

Most cashiers I deal with offer the warranty sheepishly as if they are required to by the store but think it is stupid. That i find to be a bonding experience with the cashier.

Once screwed like that my equilibrium is shattered and my entertainment value comes from screwing these people back.

An interesting take. Again, I wasn't sure he was trying to "screw me," but perhaps some of the comments above indicate that I'm irrationally hesitant about that judgment. Other stores are usually pretty different. It's pretty clear when they pull out the bright colored thingy and say, "Would you like to save 25% today and sign up for an X card?" Super easy to reject.

This wasn't like that at all, which is why I was so surprised by what happened and my un-awareness of what was actually going on.

Again, I wasn't sure he was trying to "screw me,"

Well he was employing a technique to take your money away from you, some of which would go in to his pocket. He was not selling you the warranty altruistically and he was not at all interested or concerned that you be conscious of what you were doing.

Whether he would consciously think of this as trying to screw you is an interesting question but I don't think the most important one. In the same sense we say a peacock is trying to get laid by parading in front of peahens with his tail up, we can say he was trying to screw you. The peacock likely doesn't consciously know he's trying to get laid, he's just doing what comes naturally. Similarly this salesman is lining his pockets with your money, no matter what he thinks he's doing.

If there is an interesting interpretation of what is going on that is NOT the salesman trying to screw you, please let me know. I tend to be a bit negative about some things, and maybe this is one of them.

It's probably just the connotation of the phrase that caused me to be hesitant. Perhaps selling a warranty isn't equivalent with the class of deed I'd call "screwing." I get your point though -- action X and action X committed with awareness of action X don't necessitate separate names.

I'll have to think more about why I'm hesitant to attribute that word to what happened. Perhaps (and I guess I've already said this more or less) I'm just not able to think he was acting with malice. But maybe that's not a requirement of "screwing."

Interesting. My threshold for screwing is not malice at all, but self-serving disregard. It seems clear he is willing to take your money against your informed will. Whether he is consciuosly aware of that and whether he enjoys anticipating the harm to you that comes from that may be interesting and even important questions, but I think very secondary and very separable from any consideration about effective ways to react.

If we can attribute motivations to unliving objects, water seeks its own level, that kind of thing, then we can attribute motivation to people taking our money, and have it be meaningfully valuable regardless of what those people are feeling.

On the other hand, I probably do assume the guy is malicious because of the way I think/talk about these transactions, and your posts make me wonder if that is usually the case.

By the way, Menards is a hardware store. Like Lowe's or Home Depot or the hardware section of Sears.