Volume 14, Number 6
If you are in the food or beverage industry, the business model is clear. Convincing customers to buy more than they intended results in greater profit for little increase in cost. Therefore, servers are routinely trained to “upsell,” that is, to persuade a customer to buy something extra. It can be as simple as asking the customer if she/he would like to make that beverage a large rather than a medium, because it is only a few cents more. Upselling, when done well, looks to the consumer like a good bargain.
In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the United Kingdom (UK) published a report that examined the impact of upselling. On average, a person in the UK experiences food and beverage upselling over 100 times per year. Most persons bought something larger at least once per week. The average additional cost in such transactions was 17%, in exchange for 55% more calories. Approximately 17,000 additional calories per year were attributed to upselling in this study, which translates to a nearly 5-pound weight gain over the course of a year. Interestingly, the 18-24-year-old segment of the population was found to be most susceptible to upsizing, such that the average weight gain in this age group was roughly 11 pounds. While upselling is good for the business, it results in upsizing for the consumer.
These data come from the UK, but since the United States (US) has a greater prevalence of overweight and obesity than the UK, it is probably safe to infer that upselling is at least as prevalent in the US as in the UK. Over 70% of adults in the US are overweight or obese. Rates have increased rapidly over the past few decades. A person gaining 5 pounds per year as a result of upselling translates to 50 pounds over a decade, or 100 pounds over two decades. Obviously, upselling is by no means the only contributor to the obesity epidemic, but the UK report makes a compelling case about the “size” of the impact of upselling.
Given that food and beverage servers are trained to be adept at upselling, how can the consumer be resistant to upselling pitches? Planning in advance what food or beverage one is going to order, and then sticking to that plan, is an important starting point. Another strategy is to recognize upselling when it is occurring, and take the perspective that saying “OK” to the pitch means more profit for the restaurant or vendor but a waistline (and health) cost to the consumer. These approaches require some degree of willpower, typically at a time when willpower may be depleted due to hunger or fatigue. But, such resistant behavior can be practiced and become habitual, particularly if “upselling” is readily recognized for what it is and functions as a cue to say “no, thank you” rather than “sure.”
In the UK, the RSPH is advocating that businesses take some responsibility for their obesity epidemic, and only upsell healthy foods. For those in the food and beverage industry, that means a step toward lower profits. In the United States, public health advocacy for regulations (or taxation) on the sale of high caloric foods and beverages has generally been thwarted. At least at the present time, if upsizing (i.e., weight gain) attributable to upselling is to be avoided, the responsibility rests with the consumer.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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