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Sense of urgency

August 8, 2011

A few years ago, I worked for about seven very unusual months at a direct marketing company that sold assorted items for kids to raise money for nonprofits. If you’ve passed by a table at your local Walgreens or grocery store where two cheery, snappily-dressed representatives greet and beckon you over, you may have seen us at work. Each morning we’d practice our pitches and get trained in the multitude of careful and proven techniques direct marketers use to catch your attention, pique your interest in what they’re offering, and ultimately convince you to make a purchase in the span of about two minutes. It was kind of like being in a cult. It was also ridiculously fun on most days, and one of the biggest learning experiences I ever had about how people operate and make decisions as consumers on the most basic of levels.

But this entry isn’t about my experiences as saleswoman-for-a-cause (which, one could argue, is what I still currently do in my job as a nonprofit grantwriter). It’s about some of the concepts we were taught to use: sense of urgency, and fear of loss. We always strived to have a sense of urgency in the field. To keep things moving, to rearrange the table to create action, to always be on the lookout for the next person. We also learned to create a sense of urgency in people, to make them feel that they had to help the nonprofit NOW, that they couldn’t wait until later because they would miss out on the chance or the deal. It seems silly, but this worked so often.

For a real sense of urgency, though, visit the Daley Plaza farmers’ market at about 2:30 in the afternoon. I lost track of the time after lunch and ended up doing this on Thursday.

The market officially closes at 3 pm, but by about 2:30 a lot of vendors have already left or are in the process of packing up. You really want to hit the market before 1, when you can still get the choicest fruits and veggies. For something really rare or popular, you have to be there in the morning. (I confess I’ve never done this.)

As I hurried up to the stands, I was relieved to see that several vendors were still open and had a lot of selection. I quickly scouted the tables, weaving in and out among a throng of people also craning their necks and swiftly sorting through bins of eggplant and piles of lettuce. A bottleneck had formed at the register for one stand, where all greens were $1.00 a bunch. (You can seek good deals at the end of the market, t00.) I was able to grab mushrooms for egg salad just before River Valley Kitchens closed. I found myself mentally prioritizing blueberries and tomatoes as I booked it across the square to Nichols. The blueberries lost out, and I reached the Nichols stand in time for a regular who recognized me to take a stack of crates back down and show me some yellow tomatoes, which I quickly purchased. With an impulse buy of black cherries, I was all set. I hadn’t missed it after all.

This is a truism from marketing I still see in action everywhere: Fear of loss is one of humankind’s greatest motivators. We don’t want to lose out. We will even buy things we don’t really want or need if we get caught up in the idea that we won’t be able to get it at a future time. Everyone uses it: Department stores (“Giant blowouts, only through Sunday!” “Get this deal before it’s gone!”), fast-food restaurants (“the Double Bacon-Cheese Supreme back for a limited time only!”), magazines (“This is your LAST ISSUE!” – don’t worry, they’ll send you three more notices). Grocery stores certainly use it to advertise their latest deals. But the concept no longer seems to apply when it comes to the actual food they sell… Produce in the grocery store is available year-round. No need to panic that the avocado you’re eyeing won’t be there next week. It will. It’ll be there in January too.

I would argue fear of loss is not merely a tool for consumer manipulation, but actually has an important purpose. We appreciate something so much more if we know it’s fleeting. Like a spring day in Chicago, the blooms on our backyard catalpa tree. If that tree bloomed all year-round, I guarantee I would stop even noticing it. If the weather was a balmy, sunny 75 degrees 12 months of the year, eventually I’d be ready to move somewhere I can make a snowman.

Variety is the spice of life, and fear of loss is still in full force at the market. The available produce is always changing. One week gooseberries appeared. I sampled them for the first time, but didn’t get around to buying them the first couple weeks. Now, they’re gone! I’ll have to make a point to buy them next year.

Asparagus is such a highly-anticipated and fleeting spring vegetable that stands started having signs that said “The last!” while others still had signs reading, “Taste what you’ve been missing!” I took full advantage of its availability while it lasted. We had an asparagus omelette, pasta with broccoli and asparagus, a quinoa salad with asparagus, and a delectable fried-egg, roasted asparagus, and spring-greens salad topped with a hot garlic dressing. (Another fear-of-loss lesson: Write down any recipes you invent THAT NIGHT. I don’t exactly remember how I made that last one!)

Finally, Dave said, “I think we’ve had enough asparagus for a while.” This neatly coincided with their disappearance at the market. After feasting on and deeply appreciating asparagus this spring, we won’t be tasting any until next year. Come April, we’ll be seeking those first fresh, tender deep-green spears with an urgency.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Fuzzy permalink
    August 14, 2011 9:53 am

    As a collector of things I have been guilty of buying stuff (lots of stuff) because of my sense of urgency.

    I remember when I would have a long list of items that I would like to pre-order and give it to the store manager and I would show up the day of the release to buy it because I was always afraid it would run out.

    I feel like a fool seeing the same product still around many years later and even cheaper than when I purchase it. (some things have gone away but their number is small)

    In the realm of food my lovely wife and I have been eating what we get in our local farmers box every week. We have the urgency to eat what we have before it goes bad but we have not fallen in the asparagus trap yet. We eat what we have. (However I am the first person to make a mad grab for avocados every time I see them..fearing that they might go out of season )

    Like everything, having too much sense of urgency is bad but not having it at all will make us into “potato couches”.

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