Buy one get one free

This is a universal gimmick as we all know. The word ‘free’ is magical to many, including me. Say ‘muft’ and you can get a million in front of you in a jiffy in India. Sometimes I wonder what started it all in apna desh. Was it Guptaji perhaps? And it reminds me of a joke about the man who purchased an elephant chain (many kilos of iron) when he heard that the elephant came free with it, only to realize the immensity of the folly a day later, when he had to care for the elephant.

Many years back, we had the first of the free items, the small ‘charm’ or animal replica with the Binaca paste. Some people like my dad were die hard fans of the Binaca green paste, but never collected the charm. Some others purchased the paste for the sake of the charm and ended up with boxes of charms.

Then came the flood of free items. They would offer somewhat silly stuff in the 80’s, like a comb or a spoon with various new releases and I remember my mother, who meticulously calculated the costs and advantages of any purchase, was the one who always fell for it. She would also enter into all kinds of contests and collect and store the wrappings etc for a future ‘contest’ entry. There were things like jackpot, the maggi contests and to be fair, she did win some small prizes in those events, which went on to keep her hopes and spirits up. But the store room soon started to fill with all kinds of waste paper especially plastic wrappings & bottle caps and we had to take charge and get rid of the trash, only to face hysterics from mom, which would rival the best actress in Malayalam movies. . I was the one who started these cleanings process whenever I went home for vacation. She would bitterly state that we had no value for money and so on and so forth & Dad wisely stayed as far away from these events as possible.

Ooops! As Britney said, I am drifting. We were on the subject of ‘free…free…’ not contests. Where were we? Gupatji. Well, the first entry of these kinds of traders were in the exhibition areas. Once a year, the exhibition came to town and with them a whole load of people hawking peelers, knives, kitchen gadgets, all kinds of alien food items (typically north Indian food items), and side activities to keep kids enthralled like magicians and merry go rounds, giant wheels, shooting arenas, three headed men and so on created the oft visited exhibition. And tucked into a prominent corner would be the large Gupatji kind of stall which had the very interesting Rajasthani bed sheets, the Gujrati saris and cushion covers, plus the many types of blankets.

One could always ask what you did with blankets in Palghat or Calicut, but well, we did find a good use for them on certain days, at least the oldest of the people found a purpose for them. It was a welcome relief to use a decent blanket in place of the scratchy ‘karimbadam’. And there were carpet sellers, who hardly sold anything, but then again one or two society ladies who had a fabulous mansion or two to furnish and who spoke passable Hindi, possibly kept them busy. And to entice all these wandering souls, the big banner would proclaim – Buy one get one free.

At first it was not obvious that the prices actually covered the cost of the free item as well. The only persons who went for these were those who needed two and found this an argument to convince the man who peeled out the moolah. They it dawned on them that the quality was mediocre. And people started to take no notice of these things and started drifting away.

So Guptaji came up with the next idea – Buy one get two free. They started employing kids who would give out color leaflets emphasizing the free aspect over & over again, thereby providing much needed business for the local printer.

Well, some continued to buy these things and it is even today a very popular tactic.

Today you see juice places in Calicut’s manachira where the Zamorins family bathed once upon a time, or the SM street cloth shops located where he had his family quarters possibly, teeming with sales boys who would be screaming at the top of their lungs the list of various fresh juices or the latest Bombay arrivals and the free offers. They are today’s hawkers, but a different type compared to hawkers who were travelling hawkers. Like our Meen karan koya (fish monger moplah) or the Kabuliwalah. Here in the US, we have TV hawkers, who have refined the art to a high degree, like the types who sell car wipes and so on. They call it direct response marketing and the people are not hawkers, but pitchmen.

So, here in USA we have shopping channels & TV programs where the pitchmen introduce new things and deals in a most persuasive fashion. My own experience with them has been interesting, like the time I purchased the miracle liquid which would take away the scratches from my new car. The clincher was the extra free bottle, the free cloth and so on. Well, I did get a good muscle tone in my right hand after a week of polishing, but the scratches remained. I thought I was wiser after the debacle and the constant ridiculing over the purchase by the better half, but the next time I fell again for something that would restore the shine on silverware. All you had to do was drop the plate in with all the metals that needed polish into a sink and put in a good amount of hot water & salt. A number of testaments like how the big hotel chains used only this for their shining activity were provided by the hawker. I do not remember but there was some free gift with it too. What happened was that the salt stock at home was over in no time, the plates remained as dull as they were. The itch never went away, for we got a steamer recently which was a super deal since they offered four free steamer pads with it – a 60$ value by itself. After a day’s use we sent it back, for it dripped water all over the place.

But there was a time when it was all worth it. During the early 2000 period, shops in USA decided that they had to get people in to the store. So they offered things totally free. Like a set of 50 CDR’s or some small gadget like a voice recorder or a set of pens. Many of them were really good. I did my rounds in many of those places during thanksgiving, places like CompUSA, Circuit city, Best Buy and so on, and naturally saw a number of like-minded Desi’s at those locations. The idea I believe was to get you into the store and make you possibly buy a 3000$ music system or get you interested in one, but none of the desi’s I know ever did that. The trick in these free deals was that it cost you zero after mailing in a rebate form and getting the rebate check a few months later. So the secondary intention was to get the cash in and help out with the cash flow using these rebates.

But everything has a history right? An interesting forerunner to these ideas is the man who invented the disposable blade and found few buyers. He tried everything and one of the ideas he tried was Shave and save. What and who could that be? Gillete. He tried hard to sell his disposable razor and finally provided large stocks to banks, who gave away a stack of blades free to whoever opened a new account.

Chris Andersson explains - In its first year, 1903, Gillette sold a total of 51 razors and 168 blades. Over the next two decades, he tried every marketing gimmick he could think of. He put his own face on the package, making him both legendary and, some people believed, fictional. He sold millions of razors to the Army at a steep discount, hoping the habits soldiers developed at war would carry over to peacetime. He sold razors in bulk to banks so they could give them away with new deposits ("shave and save" campaigns). Razors were bundled with everything from Wrigley's gum to packets of coffee, tea, spices, and marshmallows. The freebies helped to sell those products, but the tactic helped Gillette even more. By giving away the razors, which were useless by themselves, he was creating demand for disposable blades. A few billion blades later, this business model is now the foundation of entire industries: Give away the cell phone, sell the monthly plan; make the videogame console cheap and sell expensive games; install fancy coffeemakers in offices at no charge so you can sell managers expensive coffee sachets.

An astute reader would make out that the whole concept had by now taken a radical turn. It was no longer an idea to get rid of excess stock; it was first cross subsidy, using a low cost item to sell a higher priced item. Now the concept was to sell something totally different by tacking on something you need. This is what is today known as ‘Freconomics’. They gave away free PC’s at a time when the PC cost 3000$, but you had to run ad’s on your machine. I think that was stupid, for there is a limit to what you can buy for your home looking at those ad’s.

Today this drives entire online industries. Get people visiting to your website by providing great content. Put in ad’s there and the sponsors gain customers. That is the Google plan. Think of it this way. The movie theatre offers a virtually free movie show. You will go. But your mind believes you should have paid $5 for the event. Weighed with that thought, you decide to spend instead that $5 saving on popcorn and coffee at the interval, something that actually costs only a few cents. All this creates hundreds of new business models, but I will not bore you with economical theories and lessons. These days the art of deals & offers is a science, one that is carefully tweaked to get the right amount of sales.

Sometimes you see small groups of wannabe singers hawking their own CD’s totally free on the street. You listen a bit and say thank you and pick one. Does it make sense? It appears that some of these guys have generated much interest. A group called Calypso which provides free CD’s of their work even owns a private jet paid from the stage shows they conduct. Now how do you like that?

Sometimes you wonder seeing these deals

Buy one vacation get another free (problem is getting leave sanctioned)
Buy one watch get another identical watch free (what for?)
Buy one car get another free (?)
Buy one pizza get another free (one reason for US obesity)
Buy one house get one free (wow!!)

And the strangest – Buy one implant, get the next free!!! (Who would do one or price each?)

But at the end of the day - Every transaction has costs associated with it, and while some consumers may appear to be benefitting at no cost to themselves, someone else is picking up the tab. By the way Chris Andersson’s book ‘Free’ is not free, it costs a bit. Still you can get a used book at Amazon for virtually the cost of shipping. How about that? I think it is a good deal, should order it.

Further reading
Chris Andersson - Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business
Foxnews article
Michaelcrews advertisement
Binaca charms blog


Urs....Jina said…
That was an interesting read.
Thankfully I have never fallen prey to the 'free'dom movement. Guess its coz I studied psychology or maybe coz Im a psycho..:P.
Either ways, I had a younger bro who was totally into free items and remember picking up weird stuf just coz it has something free along with it from a very tender age.
Jennifer said…
This is a great post, Maddy.
Especially since I had been trying to start up my businesses (one hand-made soap, other is personal coaching services) I realize free is not free. Also those who think it's free or want it free are on some levels tricking only themselves (as you mention). Love that elephant story. Had you heard about the houses - wonderful mansions given away by HGTV? They were in remote and beautiful locations in US. Problem was winners #1 could not afford the taxes on such a property (both regular yearly taxes, and taxes one must pay on winnings) and #2 The house is amazing but not practical. One can not live there full time unless they are already a million or billionaire because no one can commute to work from there! (This is the problem with buy one house get one free, idea...).
In the 80s I believe in the real estate boom in Florida, many ads came for "Free trips to Florida." Now, what American would not think about that? Especially northerners like me? Well, turns out you do get a free trip, but it's not really a vacation. You could go, no need to enter a sweepstakes or anything, but problem is every day you're there you have to attend talks/workshops on real estate opportunities in Florida. You may get only a few hours a day to tour around on your own, if you're lucky!
I like your point on buy one get one free- leading to obesity. The other day, we went to McDonalds or some place like that. The cashier said, "For only 20 more cents you can get the supersize." When we denied it thrice he got mad and said, "You're the only people who have said no, and why?" For me the cost may be less now, but surely will be greater later.
The real question is why people feel so happy when they get something free? Who is really the winner? The person getting the free item or the one giving it away? Why do so many feel so happy to get something for nothing?
Indrani said…
Very interesting Maddy.
I have fallen for such offers n no. of times. Remember my episode with winnows. It seems it will bring you bad luck if you buy just one winnow. Isn't that a smart marketing strategy. :)
Sai Poornima said…
Very Nice and interesting blog. Felt very funny when i read that a elephant is free with iron chain. :-) I am one of your fans and eagerly awaiting for your forecuming blogs.
Very interesting post. I have a different experience to share. My mom wanted a stove with a side tank which she would have seen while living in the North. I was on a vacation at home. I tried every shop at Thrissur but in vain. My mom sent out her other sons (we are six) after every two days to town to hunt for her cherished item. Since this kind of stove was not popular, they were not available. However within two months the market was flooded with that kind of stoves. I do not know what kind of gimmicks the shopkeepers would have adopted to dispose off their stocks.
SUNIL said…
Nice post. Some hilarious comedy element is also hidden in this "Free" business: how to fool and how easy to fool.
And Hats off to the spirit of your mother. She must be simple at heart to cherish those silly free stuff and contests alike
Thanks for reminding the Binaca days.
Maddy said…
Thanks Jina..
you must be the rare one not to choose the option with the added incentive - you are sure, maybe once or twice?

but well..angineyum chilar....
Maddy said…
thanks jennifer
i recall the florida disneyworld ticket story as well - free entry tiockets and breakfast if you attend a promo session - and man - that was some hard sell attempt they made tos ell time shares. Didnt fall for it though.

The question - why do we feel happy? well everybody feels they have done more in life than others think they deserve. so when something is given free, you finally think it is a just end - a finish or a least for a moment, or possibly it is the hidden thrill of a steal...

remember also that givers feel equally happy..
Maddy said…
Thanks Sai Poornima - and welcome - please do visit often and comment. It is interactive comments that keep a writer going..
Maddy said…
PNS - you are right,I guess your repeated efforts whipped up the demand and this resulted in the flood in the market - or it was just a matter of timing. I am sure they would have made some offer - like a gunny bag free or something.
Maddy said…
Sunil - my mom was a great character, her memories light up many a dark and gloomy day and if I have learnt perseverence, it is from her She just would not take no for an answer. I remember sitting in front of a government clerk in Trivandrum for 7 hours for something and the guy kept telling me to leave and come later. i just would not and finally at 430PM, he got fed up and had the paper issued.
Happy Kitten said…
Even I fall for them most of the times... knowing well that it is not me who is gaining but the one who is selling...

but when competition gets tough one does get a fair deal, specially from super markets who try every gimmick to attract customers and the trick is to buy only those items for which they have offers.. but this seldom happens..
I was reminded of a quote by Cho Ramaswamy, the editor of Tughlak magazine: "With a head like mine, how could I add free shampoo satchets with our new issues?"

Long back I had written about a very unfortunate experience in getting a free Indrajal comic.
Jennifer said…
Maddy good point! Yes givers can have a happy feeling :)

I always forget that. Especially in the helper-helpee relationship.
Haddock said…
That was a great and interesting post.
Yes I remember those small plastic animals that we used to get with the Binaca Paste (but I never liked the taste of Binaca) Then there was a contest to give a name for the dream girl of Ponds Powder.
The latest things that you see all over is all just a gimmick . . . . . . . . buy one get 2 free / 3 free / 5 free ......believe me I have even seen upto 10 free !!!!
Kadambari said…
The plastic animals with Binaca paste were really fun.

If by any chance you happen to or have read the Asterix comics - there is a book - Obelix and Co.
Describes marketing strategy very well.
Maddy said…
thanks HK & talkative man,
i could not help but laugh at Cho's comment!
thanks Jennifer..
Maddy said…
thanks haddock & Kadambari...
yes, i have all of asterix, will check it once again,