6 Marketing Strategy Lessons from the Street Shysters in Rome

My girlfriend and I recently took a week-long vacation to Rome and it definitely lived up to the hype. The Forum was fascinating, the Colosseum definitely did not disappoint, and the many churches and fountains across the city were magnificent. Not to mention all of the delicious pizza, pasta, and gelato a person could ask for. It was an incredible trip, but one thing that was a definite buzzkill was all of the shysters in our faces trying to sell us worthless trinkets at every turn.

5 euros for a polaroid picture, 2 euros for a wilting rose, who knows how much for the mechanical dancing cat, and I can’t forget the three thread friendship bracelets the guys from Senegal put on people’s wrist “for free” and then try to guilt them into paying 3 euros for.

There are, however, the street vendors who sell unique wares that are famous in areas like Rome and Mexico. These guys at least aren’t shoving things in your face while you’re sitting down inside of a restaurant. These folks sell things like leather goods, purses, handmade jewelry, hats, sunglasses, scarves, paintings, and pictures.

The longer you’re in Rome, the more you will start to notice how nothing these shysters do is by accident. They’ve narrowed the success of these unique small businesses down to a nearly exact science. Take the scarf guys for instance. One thing you’ll notice about the scarf stands is that almost every stand has at least one fake Burberry scarf on their table. They usually keep one of these Burberry scarves at the front of their table to draw the attention of people who recognize the Burberry brand’s world-famous pattern.

Branding is King

Shysters take advantage of the millions of dollars that Burberry has spent on branding, to attract potential customers to examine all of the scarves they offer. Once they suck you in with the Burberry pattern, they can easily talk you into spending 3-5 euros on one of their eye-catching scarves.

Roman Street Vendor Selling Scarves with arrow

People Buy from Hard Workers

Another thing you will notice from the scarf sellers is that they rarely spend much time standing around doing nothing. They are almost always unrolling and rerolling up their scarves. The scarves do naturally lose their tightness and need rerolling over time, however, the amount that the street merchants reroll them vastly exceeds that time to time need. Do they do it because they get bored? Maybe sometimes. But for the most part, they do it because psychologically you are more willing to pay someone whom you judge as being worth it. If you see the scarf seller working, you are subconsciously pre-dispositioned to be more willing to give him money than if you saw him sitting on a chair reading the paper.

By constantly unrolling and rerolling the scarves, the street merchants are branding themselves as people who work for their money, rather than someone who is asking you for it. This also allows them to market their products to you without actually having to engage you.

Emotions Affect Purchase Decisions

You will also notice the countless people who stand outside of restaurants asking you if you would like to come in and sit down at their restaurant. They are very friendly when they look at you with a large smile and quickly list off their most popular dishes that might draw you in. But where they take it further is how they treat you after you’ve passed them by without taking them up on their offer.

Many of these people, after you’ve passed them by, will noticeably change their tone to one that sounds hurt, insulted, or possibly even rude. They do this because they know how people instinctually don’t want to disappoint or hurt people’s feelings. They’re after that one out of every fifty people who might just feel so bad about brushing the person off that they come back and decide to check out their menu out of guilt.

They’ve practiced this “You really hurt my feelings when you ignored me shouting at you in the street…” routine. And they practice it because every now and then, it works.

Sales is a Numbers Game

And what can we learn from the rose and polaroid sellers? Those who do nothing but approach every single person they see in the day and ask them if they want to buy what they’re selling?

At its heart, Sales truly is always a numbers game.

Great sales people will obviously sell more than those who aren’t as charismatic, or knowledgeable about how to meet clients’ needs. However, sales truly boils down to getting your product in front of the largest amount of people possible in order to make sure you can find those people out there who have a demand and are willing to pay.

These shyster street-peddlers are bulldogs. They pound the pavement. If they were software sales people, they would be the ones making 200 cold calls a day. It’s a draining way to make sales, but if you are able to throw out all fear of rejection, it works every time.

Sales Scripts Don’t Work When People Know They Are Scripts

Perhaps the most interesting thing you’ll notice when you pay close attention to the peddlers from Senegal is their blatant use of sales scripts. Again, these guys have this stuff down to a science.

Here’s what they do:

They dress up in very colorful, African style clothing to make you think their goods are more authentic. They come to your table in a public place and approach you with a big smile and some kind of line like “Hello, my friends!” or “Hakuna Matata!” (What human with a soul doesn’t respond positively to Hakuna Matata?)

Their next question is “Where are you from?” This is a question that is almost guaranteed to get an answer. When someone asks you where you are from, unless you hate where you are from, you answer because you are proud of your country, and usually the only reason you wouldn’t say it is if you were embarrassed or ashamed. Therefore, you respond like I did the first time. “I’m from the U.S.” Then they start to tell you how lovely they think your country is and then about some friend they have that lives there or has been there before.

This works in two ways: It makes you subconsciously like them more because they like your country, and they now have a connection with you because of having the friend who has been to your country. All of these things are small and subtle, but they work a little bit at a time.

After complimenting you on your country, they then tell you how hard life is in their country, and how things really have turned for the worst there. Since they almost always target couples, the next step is to ask the couple if they are married. Whether or not the couple is married or not, they then try and put a bracelet on the girl’s hand and leave multiple threads down on the table that you can tie into a friendship bracelet if you wish. They tell you these gifts are just for you because you are such nice people and a lovely couple.

Here comes the kicker. If you accept the “gifts” that you were given for being such amazing people, the shyster will then ask you for just a few euros so that he can get a sandwich to eat. He might throw in that he hasn’t sold many trinkets tonight and make you feel like he’s worthy of the charity. I also saw them point blank ask for the money “because times are very tough,” but mostly they use the sandwich line.

Sales scripts can be a great way to give your employees a way to discuss the benefits of your products or services in a comfortable way, without being as nervous or as intimidated. When used ethically, they are a great tool. However, when used unethically and people know you are using a script, the sale is an almost absolute no-go.

flower sellers marketing lessons from Rome

Reasons Will Help You Persuade

There is the obvious bait and switch tactic here, but further than that, they use the sandwich line to bring up more guilt from you. It’s much harder to refuse to give someone money for a sandwich than it is to deny them money when they ask for it for no reason. They might have also been successful in making you feel guilty if you believe that they actually “gifted” you their trinkets.

All in all, it’s another guilt centered strategy that is famous of shysters all of the world, from Las Vegas to Senegal. But the way that they ask you for a sandwich can actually teach you a very important lesson in Marketing.

In Chapter 35 of Robert B. Caldini’s book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, he and his colleagues explain that you are much more likely to get what you ask for when you give a reason for why you are requesting it, even if that reason is just “because.”

Just as the shysters tell you they need your money to buy a sandwich, your customers will appreciate knowing why they are being charged and what for. Rather than charging unclear fees for unclear services, giving transparent reasons for why you charge what you charge can go a long way in building trust with your customer base.

Reasons can also make your promotions more effective. By giving a reason why you are offering a specific promotion, the promotion seems more authentic, and more people will be inclined to take advantage of it.

There is a whole different world of business going on in places like Rome. Their illegal street vendors certainly operate under different business models than the one your’s does. One thing remains the same, though. People are people, and as long as you are selling to people, understanding marketing psychology and strategy will help you sell more to them.

The shyster street peddlers may not have the same level of overhead as Fortune 100 companies, but the basic fundamentals that are used by both to convince people to buy their products are very much the same, and they are alive and well at both ends of the spectrum.

Roman Street Vendor Selling Scarves