How I learned about upselling from The Organic Pharmacy

Iona Bain

I like to think I’m a savvy sort. I book ahead for my train tickets, head sonar-like to the bargain rail in shops and have mastered the “Oh, I think I’ll be alright, thanks” line at the till of Superdrug when they ask me if I want to buy Rihanna’s perfume. I am ice-cold with cold callers. I am not a big spender – when I do buy something, it’s small fry. And while I’m frugal, all in all, I’m a happy camper.

But I found myself in an awkward spot earlier this year. I didn’t want to admit it at the time but I now realise that sharing is caring; if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone and I hoped that someone might learn from me being a bit of a wally. Forewarned is most certainly forearmed.

Upselling is one of the most subtle methods that firms use to prise more cash from your bank account. It works so well because it only occurs once you have already dropped some dough and feel less inclined to query another smaller purchase. Psychologically, you lose out due to a temporary adjustment in your judgement and perspective caused by your previous splurge; the secondary purchase only becomes relative to what you have already spent.  Salesmen (and quite often these days, women) come at you with seductive yet authoritative words about follow-up products that you absolutely need and if you don’t get them…more fool you!

I had been working hard earlier this year and felt my skin could do with some TLC. It wasn’t in a terrible state, just a bit dehydrated. Like many women, I see facials as an occasional, affordable luxury and a way to step back, relax and indulge in me-time. You don’t expect anything miraculous; just a chance to treat your skin and give it (and your confidence) a little temporary boost. I had previously reserved such indulgences for my occasional visits to Edinburgh, where a very nice lady calls Lynn provides facials and massages at a local health club.

Lynn, I now regard you as a beacon of fairly priced, well-delivered pampering, a goddess with a soothing touch and gentle plinky plonk music. You never try to sell me anything extra or even pressurise me into booking another appointment. You give me sound advice that doesn’t cost a penny – be gentle with your skin, drink plenty of water, exercise, try and take it easy.

But on this occasion, I was in London and wanted to get a quality facial. I probably should have stopped right there and made a quick dash to Superdrug (them again!) for a DIY version of what I wanted (i.e. a glorified mud mask). That’s because beauty treatments in London, I now realise, are a consumerist minefield, with a vast array of both worryingly cheap and horrifically expensive options – and not much in-between.

I consulted a book (old school!) on my shelf, written by a well-respected former fashion journalist, which recommended a firm called The Organic Pharmacy. It offered a comprehensive treatment that would result in “glowing skin”. I winced at the cost (£75) but justified it as a one-off following months of hard work and frugality. I also reassured myself that I would get something quality, recommended and all-natural that wouldn’t leave my skin resembling the surface of Mars. I have had problematic acne in the past, which I even wrote about in a national newspaper, so I didn’t want to take a risk with a bog-standard basement outfit, the likes of which tend to dominate discount beauty sites.

I also now realise how tactful Lynn had been about any minor skin issues, the inevitable upshot of a busy life in cloggy claggy London. The OP facialist started her covert upselling strategy by being relentlessly negative about the state of my skin. Scrutinising my bare face at close quarters for an hour, I’m sure she could find many a imperfection but I wonder whether her standards were on a par with the poreless female robots that are currently being built in Japan.

Rather than a nice relaxing treatment, this was turning into a real-time trolling session. I thought facials and the like were designed to make you feel good, not make you feel like Gollum. Some gentle suggestions as to what I could be doing better – fine. A critique that undermines your confidence, however, is Not Cool.

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But this is a classic upselling technique. Once we came to the end of our treatment, out came a panoply of products, all priced above £30, that I would need to correct the dire situation that my skin was in – you would think I had cancerous boils, not a bit of dryness. It wasn’t just one jar/tube/pot – I was told I “needed” to buy all three. Having enquired about the price (which curiously wouldn’t have been mentioned otherwise) I realised that the final bill would be more than £100, not including the treatment. WHAT?!

Maybe I am a peasant who mixes in lowly circles. But I can’t conceive of any 20 something who would be happy to drop nearly £200 in a day on their skin without really thinking it over (unless she appears on Made in Chelsea). I opted for a mask based on the miraculous properties it apparently held and was perfectly happy with its results but not sufficiently bowled over that I went running back to the shop to replace it at £37 a pop (especially since the tube was somewhat a somewhat stingy size).

I politely resisted everything else but was embarrassed to say “no, I don’t want to spend this much money.”  I wonder whether this is why so many people get in over their heads with debt – because they’re too shame-faced (like I was) to be honest about prices.

The facialist assumed that because I had bought a treatment, I was happy to stump up. But is it fair to pressurise customers into buying products through a protracted and pushy selling pitch when that is not the intended purpose of their visit? If the customer loves the facial and later notices how much it has helped her skin, she will happily come back to get the products if she can recreate the same effect at home.

Upselling is effective with beauty treatments because a lot of women are particularly keen to look their best – it somehow gets right to the core of their self-esteem. Having been told their skin needs drastic improvement, they will be primed to accept any suggested remedy. If a product claims to offer brilliant outcomes, it will be desired regardless of what it costs. The beauty industry sits outside normal cost considerations for even the most level-headed women.

Of course, I could have snapped everything up without ending up on the streets sleeping in a cardboard box. And possibly my skin would have been transformed to look like a china doll. But a) I highly doubt that and b) once these things start, where do they end? It’s a bit like lying. Dan Ariely, the renowned professor of psychology and behavioural economics, and others have pointed out that people who are not used to lying experience an enormous fluctuation in their brain activity when they do fib, pointing to serious emotional disquiet. But if it becomes customary? The brain barely reacts. People become used to something that would have been anathema at one time.

The final chapter in the tale; having supplied my details at the point of purchase, I was called up on Monday morning a few weeks later on an unknown number whilst working a busy shift at a newspaper. It was my (former) facialist, wondering if I’d like to book another appointment. Perhaps some of her other female clients are free and happy to chat pores at the beginning of a working week, but not me. I’m glad it went to voicemail – funnily enough, I wasn’t minded to rush back to have my self image dented in the service of selling more expensive products.

The experience taught me a lot. It taught me that not all beauty treatments are relaxing affairs but sometimes used as opportunities to sell you products you don’t really want or need. That businesses in London and other places can be geared towards the buying habits of wealthy people and that they may wrongly assume all potential customers fit that profile. But most of all, it taught me that it’s perfectly okay – indeed, a very good thing – to say “no thank you”.

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