Older adults are often the targets of scams and schemes designed to confuse them and take their money. We hear the headlines and think “I’d never fall prey to a scam like that.” But, would we?? We all know a sales pitch when we see one; a billboard on the highway advertising a restaurant, a television commercial for a car dealership, or a direct mail piece announcing a department store sale. But what about the overly friendly greeting from the bank teller, your dental hygienist’s inquiry about your summer vacation, or that bowl of bright yellow bananas perched atop the post of a rope in the line at your coffee shop? Are those unrelated, random items – or are they an attempt to manipulate you and take your money? I think they are the latter, but let’s break them down a bit and see what you think.
For the past several years, I’ve noticed that bank tellers are overly friendly. I’m speaking specifically about the large, national banks, not the local banks where actually know your banker and have a relationship with them. They greet me at the door, they call me by my first name, even though they have never met me and are half my age, they ask me lots of questions like “how is your day going,” “what are you doing this weekend,” “what is the best thing that has happened to you today,” etc., etc. each of them in an overly cheerful and perky manner, while holding onto my transaction until I say something in response. Sometimes, cubicle dwellers pop up out of their cubicles with similar greetings “have a swell day,” “what brings you in today?” “come over to my desk and have a seat, etc., etc.” all of this when I just want to make a deposit, cash a check, or pay a bill quickly and be on my way. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, and I’m okay with that.
Banks have plenty of signs advertising their latest greatest .05% certificate of deposit, 18.9% interest credit cards, and home equity loans. If I need a banking product, I’m pretty certain I know where to find a banker, but I usually just go to the bank because it is just one more errand on my lengthy list of things to do. I don’t need a new friend, I don’t have time for chitchat, and I do not want a teller to do anything for me other than process my transaction. You might ask why I’ve got such an attitude when they are just trying to be nice, but I don’t actually think they are being nice. I think they are trying to slide their hands in my pocket in an especially sneaky way and I don’t like it. I’m not alone. I have a friend who actually refuses to go inside banks. When I go to the bank, he stands outside, often in the rain, because he “doesn’t want to be accosted by bankers.”
Call me paranoid, but the advent of the really, really cheerful national bank teller seemed to coincide with the bank failures, scams, and bailouts that toppled our economy a few years back. Banks gave themselves a black eye with their greed and poor management and deservedly took a hit on public opinion polls. Enter the really, really cheerful teller who just wants to be your new best friend. Isn’t this just an effort to make us feel like they appreciate our business? I don’t think so, because if you do start up a conversation about your weekend plans to work on your car, you are likely to hear all about the bank’s new car loans. If you mention that you are planning a vacation to Hawaii, you will probably be given a credit card application. And, if you proudly announce that your wife is pregnant, the news will be loudly cheered while you are offered the opportunity to open a college savings account.
Sure, I know, this is a capitalist society and businesses have a profit motive, but what really annoys me is when a business’s desire to sell me something is couched as concern for me as a human being, which brings me to your dental hygienist.
Have you ever wondered why dental hygienists are so darn perky? Have you ever wondered how they are able to remember that you were planning a vacation 7 months ago and that they remember where you were planning to vacation and who you were taking with you? Have you ever noticed that the discussion about your vacation comes shortly before you are encouraged to have x-rays or get your teeth whitened? Coincidence? Not quite. Decades ago, I worked in a dental office. Our boss took the entire office to a “dental office management seminar” where we were given forms to fill out about each patient’s interests, hobbies, activities, and family members. The form even had a spot for the name of the patient’s pets (I am not making this up). The theory was that “if you spend an extra 10 minutes talking to the patient about things that matter to them, they will like you enough to pay more for their dental services.” And that is how we made the leap from a $36 dental cleaning to a $98 “oral health evaluation” in six months!
“But what does this have to do with a bowl of bright yellow bananas,” you ask? More than you might think. Recently, I spent some time at an airport food court where there were roped off serpentine lines to corral all the customers during peak times. Affixed to the top of some of the posts that held the ropes were clear, plastic bowls. In the bowls were bright yellow bananas, shiny oranges, and bags of chips. They were bright and colorful, they brightened up the dreariness of the lines, and they were easy enough to grab quickly on my way to the cash register, but I didn’t want a banana, or an orange, or a bag of chips. I just wanted my latte – and I didn’t want to have to wait forever to get it. What I really wanted, more than a banana, or an orange, or a bag of chips, was more cashiers and baristas. Instead of spending the money on sufficient staffing, the business chose to spend the money on ropes and plastic bowls so that it could create yet another opportunity to sell me something. The fact that those items were easy to grab didn’t make the line move faster. When you think about it that way, it is pretty insulting.
There are times when I want a new credit card, when I need dental x-rays, or when a banana at 35,000 feet would be a welcome treat, but I want to choose when, what, and why I make these purchases. I don’t want to be manipulated into buying them because someone was nice to me and I either felt like I owed them something and couldn’t say no or I let my guard down because it felt like I was just chatting with a friend or because “what the heck, I was standing in line anyway.” I know all about avoiding unnecessary items at the grocery check-out line, I feel no moral quandary over hanging up on telemarketers, and I pass solicitors on the street without making eye contact. However, these sales pitches feel different, maybe because they are so subtle or maybe because it is, as my friend who stands outside banks says, “taking disguised as giving.”