The challenge of upselling


After about eight years of flawless performance (OK, maybe the last two were kind of sketchy), my trusty stapler finally stopped working. When I surveyed the damage, I saw that some of the inner parts had cracked and fallen out. Realizing that it was time to buy a new stapler, I headed over to the nearest office supply store.

Once I reached the stapler aisle, I was greeted with a fairly massive selection of models. They had about a dozen manual ones (including some with “soft touch”, whatever that means), along with a half dozen automatic models. I wanted a simple replacement for my fallen companion, so I focused on the most basic models. I quickly narrowed my choices to a plastic model for about $7 and a metal one for $11.

Obviously, $4 is a pretty small difference in price. For something I’d hopefully be keeping for five years or more, the metal one should easily be worth the extra few bucks. But that logic didn’t matter here. My previous model was plastic, and held up for a really long time. So I bought the no-frills plastic model for $7.

I’m not usually the sort of person who just buys the cheapest thing, so my choice puzzled me at first. Then it dawned on me: the store did a really poor job at upselling the staplers. There was little reason to choose anything besides the most basic manual or electric model, unless you had really specific needs. And when I thought about it, I didn’t see any evidence that the metal one would last any longer or be any better to use. Plus, if the new stapler broke after a few years, I would feel a lot better replacing it with another inexpensive model, rather than getting into a vicious cycle of expensive desk accessories.

Maybe I’ve overdramatized this experience a bit. But the takeaway for marketers is quite clear. If you present customers with a wide variety of seemingly comparable products, you need to give people an easy way to tell them apart. This goes beyond features like a smooth-acting mechanism or low-staple indicator. The warranty and cost-of-ownership benefits come into play as well. For example, if the more expensive model had a lifetime warranty, where you just bring it back to the store for a no-hassle swap, and the cheaper one was just a one year guarantee, I would have upgraded in an instant.

Other people apparently feel the same way I do, at least in the exciting world of staplers. A closer look at the rack showed that the cheap model was nearly sold out, and I got the last one they had. In contrast, there were ample copies of the more expensive models that remained unwanted and unsold.