Monday, September 1, 2008

Holy shammy!

I made another 10-day cameo at the Minnesota State Fair this year. I worked the same job as last year, and every night I had achy feet to prove it. Unlike last year, I didn't keep tally of the bizarre T-shirt encounters I had. There were a few, but somehow I wasn't as amused as I was last year.

But I was amazed...amazed that the dudes at the nearby shammy booth didn't lie to people. Last year I watched two hucksters tell people, hour after hour, that "I can't do this for everyone, but for the first X people that buy a roll of shammies at $20, I'll throw in a second roll of shammies absolutely free."

I never heard them suggest otherwise last year, nor did I see it. It was two rolls for $20 plus tax, which meant a lot more money coming in than if they were selling them at one roll at $10 plus tax, or one roll at $21, I suspect.

News flash: There's a nationwide shammy shortage. Forget the war, forget the economy, people can't get a roll of shammies at their local fair.

The fair started out like any other, with the hucksters selling two rolls of shammies day after day. It was the same cast of characters as last year, but one thing was different.

People need shammies now more than ever.


There's a commercial I've never seen, evidently, and it's hawking shammies in 27 inches of living color. (I see the infomercial for Slim n' Lift body shaper all the time, dammit.)

That commercial, which I am told has nothing to do with the State Fair hucksters, has raised the demand for shammies at fairs across our great nation. In Stinktown the shammy hucksters were out of product after the first weekend.

In Minnesota they made it to day 10 before the supply ran thin.

The hucksters talk as if their company is selling the shammies featured on the commercial, and they have a new banner for their booth, clearly associating their product with the shammies seen on TV. Whether they're associated with the commercial or not, demand for their product is better than ever. I couldn't believe how many people were fascinated by the hucksters as soon as they saw the banner in their booth. I guess if I saw a demonstration for Slim n' Lift I'd stop, too.

On day 10 of the 12-day extravaganza I saw something I never thought I'd see, one roll for $21. They were throwing in some lame shammy sponge absolutely free, but for the first time in my two years of state fair merchandising, I saw the hucksters cut the offer down to one roll.

The booth was so desperate for product that the owner was importing shammies of different colors, indicative I suppose of a different supplier. The green and pink and blue and orange and fuscia shammies didn't last that long, however, as sales remained brisk.

What puzzled me was that by late Saturday night, the hucksters were back to selling two rolls for $21, as if they stemmed the tide.

But by day 11 it was clear the end was near. They were back to single-roll sales, for the most part, although they inexplicably went back to two rolls for a little while. Occasionally they were throwing in any random square of shammy they could find to make the deal sound sweeter than it was. Bottom line, they were still moving product at one roll for $21.

The state fair Nazis don't like their vendors to pack up early, so the sales pitches were cut back to one per hour instead of the non-stop six per hour the hucksters normally did. That helped extend the supply into today, day 12, but they still sold out of their last few hundred by mid-afternoon.

So why not sell all those rolls at $21 each? Me thinks its simple economics. The wholesale cost of those things has to be damn cheap. People are more likely to respond favorably to a great deal rather than a great demonstration. When they see one roll of shammies for $21, a lot of people probably figure it's not much of a bargain, even though the average family will save about $100 in paper towel purchases per year (allegedly). But when there's a second roll for that same $21, two friends can split the cost of two rolls, and feel good about their purchase. Or dad could buy an extra set for the family cabin and feel like he's getting a great bargain in the process.

If the rolls were $10 plus tax, a lot of people would only buy one, but the buy-one-get-one-free gimmick ensures many people are committing $20 to the life-saving shammies. It's marketing brilliance. Sell people two of something instead of one and increase your profits exponentially. What a country.

A country with a shammy shortage, no less.

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