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Shills and Specials: Running the Gauntlet on Ocean Drive

January 18th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Advertising, Marketing Techniques and Philosophies, Shel's Personal Life

Visiting my father in Florida, we treated him and his ladyfriend to lunch on fashionable Ocean Drive in Miami Beach’s South Beach deco district. Lots of lessons here on how to deal with a saturated market.

First of all, almost every restaurant (and they are numerous), not only on Ocean Drive but on several of the surrounding streets, like Lincoln Mall and Española Way, hires shills: people to stand outside, engage anyone walking by, and try to get them to stop and eat. Most of the restaurants have at least one, some have several (for the most part, pretty young women, many with European accents. I guess it must be effective, but after a while, it feels like running the gauntlet.

Second, recognizing that the consumer benefits from comparison shopping, many of the establishments print up postcards with their (for the most part very similar) offers. To us as consumers, this was very helpful, because after walking three or four blocks along the strip, we had a basis for remembering which ones had seemed like the best choices (and in fact returned to one to actually eat on the basis of the postcard).

Third, when you’re doing popular loss-leaders, you make up the revenue in other ways. We were offered $4.95 breakfasts and $8.95 to $9.95 lunches all up and down the street. The food was actually quite good—but a simple cup of tea was $3.50!

Finally, one to avoid: unpleasant surprises. When we were seated, the shill had told us she could to the advertised prices or 20 percent off the specials on display. My father asked the price of the steak special: $65! “I didn’t want to buy the cow,” he said, ordering instead one of the $4.95 breakfast deals: a huge omelet with meat, cheese, and vegetables.

We saw this same strategy in some of the retail shops, where some items were really, really cheap, and others were wildly overpriced a shelf or two over.

On the steak dinners, I imagine a fair number of people order one of the displayed specials without bothering to learn the price, and suffer major sticker shock when the bill arrives (or maybe after the drink specials, they’re too gone to notice). Considering that the same restaurant is using the same term to describe both its loss-leaders and its top-line offerings, I think this could be a disaster. It doesn’t strike me as a good way to make up revenue. In a crowded market, the last thing you want is a customer loudly arguing about the bill, especially in an open-air café that faces directly out on the street. Yes, of course, there are many places where you can pay $65 for a steak dinner and feel fine about it, but those are not restaurants that get you in the door on the basis of a $9.95 entrée. Different market, different clientele, different expectations, and no price resistance.

Interestingly, our dinner choices for two of our three nights were restaurants with no shill. In both cases, we had excellent, reasonably priced food, and the place was certainly busy enough.


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