Selling nostalgia: Take your customers on a sentimental journey

Dick Tracy Target, 1930s.
Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

There’s nothing like a good sports nickname. A clever moniker defines an athlete’s special skill in a memorable fashion. What images are suggested by the handles “The Sultan of Swat” (Babe Ruth), or “The Refrigerator” (William Perry), or “Charlie Hustle” (Pete Rose)?

Last week I read a handle that defines antique dealers’ special skill: Impresarios of Memory.

The phrase was coined by Gary Cross in his 2017 book Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism. Cross points out that antiques and family heirlooms have been replaced by cultural items as our most treasured keepsakes. Rather than being passed through generations, present-day keepsakes are purchased.

“The magic of consumer satisfaction makes nostalgia a major business,” Cross writes. “And like all entrepreneurial efforts to meet a demand, these impresarios of memory also create and channel that need, pricking the bud of desire, giving vent to its extravagant blooming, and shaping it in ways that increase sales.”

Consumer product manufacturers and Hollywood producers spend billions of dollars annually to access our craving for emotional continuity with the past. Music re-issues, movie sequels and resurrected brands all find pre-sold audiences. These nostalgic offerings elicit emotional responses that put consumers in a “buying mood.” Consider the annual holiday-spending frenzy at the end of each year: the music, the aromas, the food and the decorations all conspire to engage our memories and relieve us of our money.

Consumers buy emotionally, justify logically

Courtney Seiter, in her article “The Science of Emotion in Marketing: How Our Brains Decide What to Share and Whom to Trust” relates:

“In an analysis of…1,400 advertising campaigns by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, (campaigns) with purely emotional content performed about twice as well as those with only rational content…That makes sense based on what scientists know about the brain – that people feel first, and think second. The emotional brain processes sensory information in one-fifth the time our cognitive brain takes to assimilate the same input.”

Snow White Doc and Dopey wooden pull/push toy, Fisher Price, 1937. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Nostalgia bypasses the logical mind and directly accesses one’s emotions. As sales trainers are fond of telling us, buying decisions are made emotionally and justified logically. Neuroscientists have proven that this is the case: In his 2003 article “The Subconscious Mind of the Consumer (And How to Reach It)”, Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95 percent of our purchase decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind. “What consumers actually believe or think, as measured by unconscious physical reactions, contradicts what they say when asked directly.”

What corporations strive to capture we antiques dealers have by default. Nostalgia is our stock-in-trade. We are the true Impresarios of Memory. Antiques dealers leverage nostalgia daily. We merchandise our stores around nostalgic themes and pepper online product descriptions with wistful references. Our websites and marketing materials are a “walk down memory lane.”

Antiques Dealers have easy access to “the holy grail of marketing”

All generations are affected by the pull of nostalgia. Lauren Friedman points out in her Forbes Magazine article “Why Nostalgia Marketing Works So Well with Millennials, And How Your Brand Can Benefit”:

“As the years go by, we all develop a certain degree of nostalgia for our younger days. The games we played, the food we ate, the music we listened to – they all make us feel something…Share a compelling blast from the past with a millennial, and you’re likely to reach them on an emotional level — the holy grail of brand marketing.”

Gary Cross writes:

Huckleberry Hound lamp, 1960. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

“Today’s nostalgia is rooted in special emotions linked to memories of modern childhood…Our nostalgia for them is associated with two stages of childhood: the emerging autonomy of primary-school-age children and the emotionally charged peer-group experience of adolescence.”

There are two ways of accessing these nostalgic leanings:

  1. Create a store atmosphere that triggers nostalgic feelings
  2. Use a sales technique that connects emotionally with customers

I’ve discussed nostalgia as a store merchandising tool in two past columns. You can check them out here:

A selling tool for your Nostalgia toolbox

Most retail sales associates have no training in personal selling skills. The call and response of “can I help you – just looking” is commonplace. Associates avoid a hard sell, so they give customers some space, answer their questions and watch them walk out the door without having made a purchase.

The training offered by “famous” sales courses don’t work in an antique store environment. I know, because I’ve taken most of them: Dale Carnegie, J. Douglas Edwards, Brian Tracy and Sandler Sales System. Their techniques are formulaic and appeal to the logical mind: feature/benefit, price negotiating, investment logic, price advantage, quality advantage, etc. These courses are great for business-to-business sales, though.

For my one-on-one sales approach, I take my cue from Lauren Friedman: dealers should “share a compelling blast from the past” with their customers to engage them emotionally. With my technique, however, the sharing is done by the customer, not the sales associate. The technique is easy to understand but challenging to implement. It works with all age cohorts and customer types:

  • Collectors (who look for items in categories they collect)
  • Browsers: (who come in for entertainment value; an antique store is like a free museum)
  • Shoppers: (who look for decorative items or gifts)
  • Loiterers: (who are getting out of the rain or killing time while they wait for a spouse)

Tom Corbett Space Cadet Space Pistol, 1953. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Here are the steps in my “nostalgic engagement” process. For a broader look at in-store selling, see my November 2014 Behind the Gavel column, “Engaging with customers early on sets the tone for future sales.”

  • Greet the customer; tell them to have a look around and you’ll be with them in a minute.
  • Wait for them to land on an item. If they don’t land, pick up an item and engage them: “What decade would you say this is from? Did you ever have/play with one of these? What were your favorite toys/cars/whatever? Use any opener that you think is appropriate. The object is to start a conversation.
  • The key is to let the customer do the talking: it’s their story; let them tell it. Don’t get into a “me too” exchange. As they re-live moments from their past they become emotionally engaged.
  • Keep them engaged by repeating their last statement in the form of a question. For example:

Customer: (looking at a toy boat) “We used to take these down to the creek and race them”.

Associate: “You used to race them at the creek?”

Customer: (continuing the story, since you’ve shown an interest) “Yes, we especially liked to go down after it had rained, because the creek was running high and fast.”

You get the point, I’m sure: the longer the customer relives his memory, the stronger the emotional connection.

Will you sell everyone a product using this technique? Of course not. But remember there are two sales to be made with every customer that comes through your door: sell them a product, sell them on your business, or both. Using this technique, even those customers you don’t sell will leave with a positive feeling about your store; they will have connected your store to their fond memories.

We engage customers’ memories, as Cross said, to shape them in ways that increase sales. After all, we are the Impresarios of Memory, and nostalgia is the best tool in our toolbox.

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