Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Incentives matter: marketing file

Thanks to Tim Worstall for this wonderful example of a bad marketing promotion and the rational response to it.
To introduce you to a little bit of English English. To “do a Hoover” is not exactly everyday language, even here, but it will be understood by those discussing retail promotions. It means doing something sufficiently silly that it ends up enraging your customers, costs you a lot of money and in general is entirely counter-productive. You may have started off trying to sell more goods and thus making more profit but that’s not quite the way it turns out.

It comes from what the UK subsidiary of Hoover did back in 1992. In order to sell more of those machines that suck the dirt out of your carpet (a “spangler” we might say) the company decided that anyone who bought more than £100 worth of the company’s goods would be entitled to two free roundtrip air tickets.

Seeing that sales did go up they decided to expand the offer, to two roundtrip tickets to the US. Which is where the roof really started falling in. For instead of simply accelerating future purchases, moving them from the future to today (this was a time of severe recession in the UK so that could have been a decent tactic), or transferring sales from competitors to Hoover, what was actually happening was that people who wanted to visit the US bought a sucking machine.

In fact, the classifieds sections of local papers across the country began to fill up with new, unused but very cheap Hoovers. For what the promoters of the scheme seemed to have missed was that the value of two roundtrip tickets (from memory, at the time, perhaps £300 to £400) was rather larger than the amount they were asking people to spend with the company.

So, rational beings that people are, people were buying the Hoover as a cheap way of getting the tickets. Chaos obviously ensued, it became very difficult to actually cash in on the offer (they had not limited it to the first 1,000, or 10,000) and Hoover was desperately running around trying to book cheap flights from the airlines. Who, of course, knowing that they had them over a barrel, were not playing ball.

In the end this cost the company £50 million (yes, even in our funny money, quite a significant sum) the people responsible were fired and Hoover US sold off the UK company to some Italians. The court cases were still rumbling on years later.

1 comment:

Tim Worstall said...

Seeing this picked up on another blog reminds me (always the way, you never remember everything while you're actually writing).

This has a present day application: for small merchants etc thinking of offering a Groupon or similar. There are a number of tales about people getting this very point wrong in that market......