Before ShamWow and the Pocket Fisherman, fast-talking, carnival-style barkers took to the streets to sell their merchandise with elaborate sales routines.
The dying art of market sales pitching is being preserved by two professors who have studied it for a decade. Trevor Pinch, professor of sociology and of science and technology studies at Cornell University, and Colin Clark of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, have launched "Life's a Pitch!..And Then You'd Buy," an academic website and exhibit capturing the sights and sounds of British market pitchers between 1984 and 1994.
"When we commenced our research project, we quickly realized we had stumbled upon a bunch of spellbinding orators and patter-merchants who employed a highly sophisticated form of grass-roots marketing rarely found in academic textbooks," said Pinch. "We knew there was something very special in their knowledge, awareness and understanding of human behavior."
When collecting data for the study, Pinch and Clark often employed two video cameras -- one focused on the pitcher selling his or her goods, and the other on the audience. The recordings allowed them to closely examine -- moment-by-moment, word-by-word and gesture-by-gesture -- the pitchers' verbal and nonverbal selling skills, as well as the behavior of the shoppers in their audiences.
"Their very close proximity to their potential customers often meant that, in order to sell successfully, they had to develop an extraordinary sensitivity to the smallest changes in the behavior of the shoppers that gathered at their stalls," said Clark.
To accomplish this, pitchers use several colorfully named techniques. These include "pulling the edge" (getting the crowd to stop and listen), "ramping" (making a cheap item seem to be worth more) and "the bat" (lowering the price in increments so that it seems like a bargain).
When the professors revisited the same market locations in 2012, they found that the pitching -- with its roots going back well before medieval times -- had all but died out. Now they're attempting to preserve the art form with their exhibit, which is on display until Dec. 8 at the Kings College Conference Centre at the University of Aberdeen.
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