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The Art Of The Pitch: Vendors Hawk Items At The Ohio State Fair


Most people go to the fair to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl or eat funnel cakes, but not our Planet Money team. Robert Smith and Kenny Malone traveled to the Ohio State Fair to learn the secret art of selling people things they might not need.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: The marketplace building at the State Fair is three acres large.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Row after row of crazy products.

MALONE: Triad air fan.

SMITH: Ultimate Hose Nozzle.

MALONE: SolarTees, T-shirts that light up with the sun.

SMITH: The Last Glue.

MALONE: What does that even mean?

SMITH: It means that's the last glue you'll ever need, dude.

MALONE: Right, right, right, right.

SMITH: Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, hey, I'm going to go to the state fair to buy a mop.

MALONE: Which is why it is such a great place to see the power of a sales pitch.

TOMMY HARRIS: How you doing, guys? You want to see how it works? Y'all ever heard of a spiralizer or a Veggetti?

MALONE: Tommy Harris is the size of a professional wrestler.

SMITH: And he's delicately peeling the skin off a tomato with a little metal gadget.

HARRIS: Once you get it home, you get used to it. You can go right-handed, left-handed. You can even do it underhanded like most politicians nowadays (laughter).

SMITH: Tommy says the hardest part of the job just getting people to stop for a moment. Grabbing someone's attention is called the hook.

MALONE: And he says, if you want to see how the hook works, just try to walk by the woman who's pitching garden tools one row over. Also happens to be his fiancee.

SMITH: Oh, so she's here?

HARRIS: Yeah. She's right around the corner.

SMITH: She's pitching?

MALONE: Can we hear her? Can we hear her from here?

HARRIS: Only if she starts laughing.

SMITH: Really?


SMITH: She got a big laugh?

HARRIS: You'll see.

HEATHER KETO: (Laughter).

SMITH: This is Heather Keto.

KETO: (Laughter).

SMITH: Heather is leaning out from her booth with this huge grin and her arms stretched out like she wants to shake my hand.

KETO: Hey, guys. Come on over here. Y'all want to try it out? It makes your life a lot easier.

SMITH: But then, all of a sudden, she's placed into my hand a set of pruning shears called the Tiger Jaw.

MALONE: And without missing a beat, she holds up a tree branch for Robert to try them out.

KETO: Go for it. You know you want to. Great clips.

SMITH: Oh. Oh. I am hooked. Now, all Heather has to do is close the sale.

MALONE: But that is the hardest, most mystical part of the pitch. And people told us the king of the close is a guy named P.J. McGee. He sells showerheads.

SMITH: What's your best close?

P J MCGEE: The best close? The best close is asking for the money. I'll ask you three questions. Is this product better than one you have now? Usually, they say yeah. And then I always ask them this defensively and always back up and put my palms up. If you bought this today, would you use it? I mean, not everybody needs a new showerhead.

SMITH: You can't see it, but at this point, P.J. McGee is physically stepping back from the customer.

MALONE: He's holding up his hands as if to say, oh, no, did I cross the line or something?

My instinct is like, no, no, no. You're fine. I like you. Keep going.

MCGEE: Please, take my money.

SMITH: P.J. McGee has already sold 10 showerheads today.

MALONE: They cost $100 apiece.

SMITH: A lot of the selling we're used to is cerebral. You go to amazon.com. You carefully compare the products. You read the reviews, get the lowest price. But the sensory overload of a state fair short-circuits the logical mind.

MALONE: You eat things you would never normally eat. You play carnival games you know you cannot win.

SMITH: And you buy a potato peeler for the thrill of it.

HARRIS: So if you can't peel a potato, you probably shouldn't drive a car. Stay away from cliffs. Watch out for lightning outside.

SMITH: It's the end of Tommy's shift, and the crowds are starting to thin out. And I think this is my moment. Have I learned the secret of the sales pitch?

MALONE: And so Robert smoothly positions himself in front of the cutting board, picks up the peeler and starts to yell at people.

SMITH: Do you like food? Do you eat food? Do you prepare food? I can do food for you. Look at this thing.

I got no hook. I got no clothes. I cannot even remember what kind of peeler Tommy called this.

So that's why we have this wonderful spiral-cutting...

HARRIS: Spiralizer.

SMITH: ...Spiralizer.

MALONE: You did manage to get everyone's attention, Robert, but maybe not in a good way.

SMITH: Yeah. Tommy just laughed at me. How was I? Was it just - was it too much? Was it...

HARRIS: You were kind of like a teenager in the back of his car for the first time, just a little like excited.

MALONE: Poor Robert.

SMITH: That's totally fair.

Hey, it is a lot harder than it looks.

MALONE: And on the bright side, you still have radio.

SMITH: Yeah, not just any radio, but the last radio program you will ever need. And today only, two reporters for the price of one.

MALONE: Kenny Malone.

SMITH: And Robert Smith, NPR News, Columbus, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
Kenny Malone
Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.