June 4, 2015

Everything Tastes Better When It’s Free


Recently, while making the trek from the metro to the office, I was handed a coupon in front of the Mediterranean fast-casual chain, Roti. Their promotion, Random Acts of Roti, offers a chance to win free drinks, sides, main courses and even a year’s worth of meals upon entering a code on their website. Alas, I did not win a year’s supply of chicken kebabs but instead got a free side of falafel, which I will surely redeem sometime this week.

So what is it that drove me, a person who is usually averse to handouts and flyers, to grab a coupon? What is it that’s driving me, a person who would rather pack a PB&J than spend money on lunch, to venture out for a meal (where I will inevitably drop cash on a main course to accompany my complimentary falafel)? This, my friends, is the word “free.”

As Dan Ariely discusses is his book Predictably Irrational, it’s only human to react to the phrases “free” and “zero.” “FREE!,” he states, “gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is.”

And I can attest that the thrill of “free” is why I have joined seemingly unnecessary loyalty programs (free samples at Sephora!), spent too many dollars shopping online (free shipping on Amazon!), and waited in frustratingly long lines (Free Cone Day at Ben and Jerry’s!). Do I regret most of these decisions immediately after? Mostly no, I got something free out of it after all. But could I have more rationally spent my time and money? Yes, definitely.

So how can businesses leverage our irrationality and capitalize on our fascination with free? They can do something along the lines of what Roti, Sephora, Amazon, Ben and Jerry’s, and many other franchises are already doing: offer coupons, buy one get one options, rewards programs, and other “zero cost” deals that in reality only incentivize us, the innocent consumer, to spend more.

And what can we consumers do to avoid acting so impulsively? Perhaps consider the bigger picture and spend some additional time analyzing the actual value and utility of a so-called “deal.”

Or maybe instead I’ll just go to Roti, buy lunch (ugh), receive my side of falafel, and enjoy it more than any falafel I’ve ever had before. Why? Because it didn’t cost me a dime.