Don’t Fall For The UpSell!


Released in 2004, Supersize Me is a documentary that follows director, Morgan Spurlock, on his quest to discover what will happen to his body and mind when scarfing down nothing but McDonalds food for 30 consecutive days. For those of you who haven’t watched the film (spoiler alert!) let’s just say that Spurlock gained close to one pound/day, increased his body fat by almost 15%, nearly destroyed his previously healthy liver, saw a 65 point cholesterol spike, became depressed, exhausted, impotent … need I say more?

But I’m not here to review the film or comment on the garbage food (uh, oh, I suppose my reference to fast food as ‘garbage’ counts as a comment) dished out by the conventional fast food industry. Nah. Instead, I’m using Supersize Me as an excellent example of what’s known as ‘UpSelling’.


What Is Upselling?

Upsell. verbDefinition. A sales technique where seller induces the customer to purchase more expensive items, upgrades or other add-ons in an attempt to make a more profitable sale.

Part of the rules Spurlock set for himself included accepting the offer to ‘Supersize’ his order whenever offered by a McDonalds employee (thereby speeding up his march toward organ failure and mental breakdown … uh oh, I did it again! Revealed my bias by commenting).

The marketing geniuses struck gold with this catchy phrase. People loved saying it. And the more they said it when ordering fries or pop, the bigger their bill, and the more money McDonalds made.

See, that’s where the genius comes to play. To upsell customers, to get them to buy more than they want without knowing it, a cute, fun phrase is invented and actively sold to consumers.

Unfortunately, too many consumers saw only the fun of it all, failing to realize not only that the food (if you can call it that) is making them sick but, like the McDonalds Burglar (one of their cartoon characters intended to suck kids into the nefarious arched orbit), the company slyly dipped into consumers pocket for a few more bucks, lightening their wallet.


That said, no one forced consumers to buy enough pop to quench a small village’s thirst, or so many fries that Idaho potato farmers were working overtime to satisfy ever growing demand. Ultimately, each consumer made that choice.

Unlike Spurlock, consumers are not bound by any rules saying that YOU MUST CONSUME MORE if someone offers you more food or drink. Regardless, this is exactly what fast food consumers did. (However, to be fair, Spurlock claims that, eaten often enough, people develop a physical addiction to fast food not unlike a drug addiction that is terribly difficult to break).

And it took Spurlock’s film, and the ensuing outrage it sparked, for McDonalds to shelve the Supersize Me schtick. I mean, hey, when publicity negatively affects sales, you return to the drawing board to scheme other, less slippery, ways to fleece the public.

Here’s what McDonald’s Canada spokesman Ron Christianson said way back in 2004:

“We’ve not eliminated any portion sizes that used to be there. We’ve simply done an adjustment of the terminology Super Size to a large and ceased promoting it in our restaurants.”

Hah! So nothing has changed but terminology? The menu still offers fish tank sized cups of pop and flat boards full of fries … but it goes by a different name. And they don’t actively promote buying more food? Right. When was the last time you ordered a burger and weren’t asked, ‘would you like fries or salad or a drink with that?’ (Technically, this is known as ‘cross-selling’ since the customer is being induced to buy a separate item, not increase the size of the item already ordered. For this post, I’m lumping together upselling and cross selling).


Who Doesn’t Upsell?

So while McDonald’s no longer has the benefit of upselling with a clever phrase, they still upsell. And just so you won’t think that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet (um, that’s a metaphor because, um, I don’t actually have a bonnet, haven’t ever worn a bonnet and, really, wouldn’t even know where to get one), there aren’t too many for-profit organizations that don’t upsell, given the opportunity.

Cases in point:

Airlines. They’ve unbundled prices. Meaning, first you pay for airfare. Then you pay for a seat. And the closer you want to sit to the front of the plane, the more you pay. And unless you have an airline affiliated credit card or other related membership, you’re paying for baggage. Why, because major airlines are public companies. And public companies care more about shareholders than customers.

Rental Car. You’ve rented an economy car, arrive at the rental counter, and you hear, “… for $10 more, we could put you in a full size sedan; for $25, a convertible!” Then the agent tries to convince you that you need to buy their insurance; and it’s better to let the rental agency fill the tank. Just say NO, to all of that. Do your research, find the car you need, know that the rental agency rep will run a full court pressure on you, trying to sell you everything you don’t need, and say no.

Restaurants. It comes down to knowing what you want. To not being “sold” on extras. So if you just want a burger, don’t say yes to the fries simply because someone asked. The employee is responsible for asking, for trying to sell you. You are responsible for knowing what’s best for you. And this means health wise and pocketbook wise.

Clothing. Don’t browse. Know what articles of clothing you want before you visit a store, whether online or bricks and mortar. You need pants? Buy the pants but don’t let the sales clerk talk you into adding a belt when you don’t need another belt. Related, know your budget. If you’re buying shoes and your limit is $75, don’t be sweet talked into the $150 pair because they’re a ‘cool’ brand name. Say no to the more expensive pair, exercise patience, and check out other stores to find shoes you like that are within your budget.

Amazon. (yes, Amazon gets a category all its own!) Jeff Bezos and Co. are excellent at upselling. Choose an item and the site immediately recommends five other items. Drop a laptop in your checkout basket and they offer a larger, more powerful laptop. From what I’ve read, Amazon generates up to 35% of its gazillion dollars in revenue from upselling techniques. Beware! 🙂


Avoiding The Upsell

First, know what you want and stick to it. Second, don’t even consider items not o your ‘want list’. Third, know that sales drive revenue, successful companies are hugely effective at selling, and sales clerks are focused on doing their job, on making the sale.

And most importantly, be ready to say no. In fact, make ‘no’ your default position. It’s nothing to feel bad about. Really, it’s your job, your responsibility to yourself, as a consumer, to say no. Because NOT buying what you DON’T need is good for your wallet, good for building your wealth.












2 thoughts on “Don’t Fall For The UpSell!”

  1. It’s interesting reading this from the other side of the table. I currently work in the business to business world and one of my projects right now is around cross sell and upsell. These can be benefitial to the customer or a cash grab depending on what they are up selling or cross selling. An upsell might be better fit to their purpose… or it could just be a cash grab. The important part is to do the research ahead of time and not let the seller change your mind.

  2. Great post, BM! Upselling is indeed a dangerous thing for your budget (and in the case of fast food; for your health). I try to avoid up-/cross-selling by saying “no” to upgrades as a default and never buy anything impulsively.

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