The art of the late-night demo

By Gordon Hecht, YSN Contributor

It’s kind of a joke at our house. Those seemingly endless commercials for the latest kitchen gadget. Anything from coppertop cookware to knives that can cut through concrete and then slice a tomato into dime-thin slices.

No matter what the product is, my ever-lovin’ bride and I know they will be “only” $19.95. But wait, there’s more: order now, you’ll get a second one free. Just pay shipping and handling.

We don’t chop up a lot of concrete at our house and really don’t need a second Flobee. The pitch is wasted on us. But I gotta give credit to the guys and gals that bring unending enthusiasm from the gadget world to our otherwise humdrum existence.

The undisputed king of the gadget world was Ron Popeil. He started hawking his goods on the boardwalks of Atlantic City and Asbury Park, N.J.  He could quickly attract a crowd a couple of dozen strong and sell the implement du jour to a score or more of them.

He earned his crown by taking the same demonstrations from the boardwalks to the airwaves. Popeil would buy the cheapest TV time available and do the same schtick, but this time he’d have several thousand viewers. If only 10% placed an order, he was way ahead.

Popeil may have invented the infomercial. He would produce 10- to 30-minute segments, about the same length as a retail presentation in your store. He’d develop a need. Then he would demonstrate the product. It was anything from making roses out of radishes to cooking a succulent turkey in half the time. He would show several different uses for the same product.

Here’s the best part: After shredding cabbage or spraying hair on bald spots, Ron demonstrated how easy it is to clean and store the contraption. No fuss, no muss, no bother. Essentially, the infomercial was part sales pitch and part instruction manual. Who could resist a gizmo that is easy to own, use and store?

Popeil provided all that for $19.95. If only other products came fully explained.

My bride’s new iPhone was shipped in a box with a booklet on how to turn it on. The print was so small we had to rent the Hubble telescope.

Our Blu-ray player probably performs a half-hundred functions. There’re 25 buttons on the remote. So far, after five years, I’ve learned to put a movie in and hit PLAY.

Likewise, when we bought our house two years ago, we were left to fend for ourselves on everything from setting the digital thermostat to replacing the filter in the fridge.

In our retail world, we sell some basic products. Others have sophisticated electronics. And yet, whether they buy or not, many shoppers have less than a vague notion of how things work or how they can work best for them.

Mattress retailers sell a lot of adjustable motion lifestyle bases (you can pick your favorite descriptive term). The starting-price units have four to six buttons. Premium models have over a dozen.

You will sell more units and have fewer service calls if you fully demonstrate every feature of the base. For example: after a power surge the base may need to be synched again. Show the shopper how to unplug it, remove the back cover of the remote and press the RESET button. Have them repeat the actions.

Next, show them how to attain the zero-g position. Some bases have a built-in button but all bases can achieve it. Have them experience the comfort and relaxation. Be sure they know how to turn the massage on and off.

Some adjustable bases have telescoping legs. Others come in sections. Consider having one extra leg to use as a demo model. Showing beats telling, in first grade and on the sales floor.

You’ll sell tons of pillows (and at 22 ounces each, that’s a lot of pillows) when you show your shopper how easy it is to remove the zipper cover and toss it in the wash. Or give them an easy re-fluffing tip: put a pillow in the dryer for 10 minutes on cool and that pillow will feel like new.  Every six months or so add in a dryer sheet for a fresh scent, so it no longer smells like an evening in Newark, N.J. 

I know a mattress retailer who made a daring move — she unpacked a protector and spread it over a king-size floor model mattress. This way she can show how it really looks and feels on a bed. And how it stays on the bed but is easily removed.

It’s easy to train the process. Assign each person on your sales team a project. They’ll act out the instructions needed to complete a process on one feature of your merchandise selection. Some monologue is OK, but actions should outnumber words. The actions should include having a stand-in shopper repeating the actions.

Ron Popeil took the time to do this on a 20-buck item. His company, Ronco, created billions in sales every year, and he amassed a personal fortune of several hundred million dollars. We sell merchandise ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand in price. The extra 10 or 15 minutes it takes to give a live instruction manual will be worth it, satisfaction guaranteed.

Gordon Hecht is a business growth and development consultant to the retail home furnishings industry and a regular contributor to YSN. You can reach him at

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