consumers buy
Young man in supermarket looking at bottles on shelves, close-up

Why Consumers Buy What They Buy

By Cliff Ennico

Sometimes great business advice comes from the most unlikely source.

Now that summer’s here it’s time to think about beach reading. I’m not a big fiction reader, but one novelist I always keep track of is Dave Eggers. If you haven’t read any Dave Eggers, you need to – his books are extremely poignant observations of current world events and, while I disagree sometimes with his political positions, his stories will give you deeper insight into “what’s happening now” than most newspapers or TV news programs. Past novels have dealt with the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina (“Zeitoun”), and the way digital technology, especially social media, is changing the way we look at other people and the world (“The Circle”).

When I heard that Hollywood was making a movie based on one of Eggers’ earlier novels, “A Hologram for the King,” I realized I hadn’t read that one so I went out and bought a copy. The story, an offbeat and very funny commentary on the decline of American manufacturing and America’s resulting decline in influence on the world stage, centers on Alan Clay, an over-the-hill fifty-something salesperson (to be played in the movie by Tom Hanks – perfect choice) working as an independent contractor for a technology company that is looking to sell a state-of-the-art holographic telecommunications system to the Saudi Arabian government.

Clay’s interactions with Saudi government officials and other locals, foreign (mostly Chinese) competitors, other expatriates, his uncaring boss and unmotivated Millennial employees combine to form a perfect portrayal of an aging Baby Boomer’s mounting frustrations and sense of helplessness in a world growing more strange and alien by the day (a number of reviewers have compared Alan Clay to Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”).

At some future time I may write about what “A Hologram for the King” can teach entrepreneurs and business owners. But one passage in the novel deserves a column of its own.

Reminiscing about his start in sales as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesperson in the 1970s, he recalled some advice he received from a mentor about what motivates people to buy things. Specifically, about the four reasons people buy consumer goods.

The first is Money. “Appeal to their thrift,” Clay is told. “Fuller products will save them money by preserving their investments – their wood furniture, their fine china, their linoleum floors.”

The second is Romance. “Here you sell the dream,” Clay’s mentor says. “you put the Fuller products in among their aspirations. Right there next to the vacations and yachts.”

The third is Self-Preservation: “If they’re afraid to let you in, if they talk to you through the window or something, you go with this way. These products will keep you healthy, safe from germs, diseases . . . “

Finally, there is Recognition. “She wants to buy what everyone else is buying. You pick the four or five names of the most respected neighbors, you tell her those folks already bought the products.”

It’s an interesting way to look at sales strategies, and I’m dying to know where Eggers picked this up. It actually dovetails quite nicely with what I’ve been teaching for many years about customer motivation.

In my view, based on more than 35 years of working with entrepreneurs and small businesses, it all boils down to “fears” and “passions”. People buy things either because they are excited or turned on by them (passions) – they “spark joy”, in the words of decluttering expert Marie Kondo — or because the things help them sleep better at nights (by reducing their fears). To view my free 90-minute video on this approach (which I call “How to Sell Anything to Anybody”), go to and search either for “Cliff Ennico” or “how to sell”.

Eggers’ four sales motivators can, I think, easily be broken down into “fear” and “passion” responses. Self-Preservation is clearly a “fear” sell, while Money ties in to a consumer’s fear of running out of money or the shame and embarrassment (known as “buyer’s remorse”) you eventually feel when spending needlessly or foolishly.

“Romance” is clearly a passion sell, based on the consumer’s love of beautiful things and a luxurious lifestyle (or perhaps the desire to outshine the neighbors, in this case quite literally).

“Recognition” is a bit of a hybrid. Some people want to “keep up with the Joneses” because they want to be perceived as their equals or superiors – that’s a passion. Others are afraid to stand out from the crowd by being perceived as “different”.

A good salesperson is able to tell – usually at a glance, or with a few well chosen words – whether a person is motivated by fear or passion in that particular moment of time. That is the lesson Alan Clay learned as a young man. To find out if that lesson still applies in our digitized, globalizing economy, read “A Hologram for the King.”

Cliff Ennico ( is a syndicated columnist, author and host of the PBS television series ‘Money Hunt’. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at COPYRIGHT 2016 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC. Follow him at @cliffennico.