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Shoppers, beware of the upsell before you're sold

You had planned to sign up for a basic cellphone plan. But now you're in the store, the salesperson is trying to sell you on a slew of extras - call waiting, call display, unlimited texting and video calling.

Whether you're shopping for cellular services, renting a movie or simply ordering a cup of tea, you're likely the target of an upsell, a pervasive, and sometimes annoying, sales manoeuvre used to encourage you to spend more money on a costlier item or upgrade.

Upselling and the related tactic of cross-selling, used to sell additional items and services, may bring in only an incremental increase per purchase, but they can be extremely profitable for businesses over time, sales experts say.

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From a consumer's perspective, however, all those little purchases add up. If you aren't paying attention, you'll spend more than you anticipated on items you never thought you needed or wanted.

"Most customers don't like to be sold to, but we love to buy," says Calgary-based customer service strategist Jeff Mowatt.

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Mr. Mowatt says one of the most effective techniques salespeople use is to identify your demands by asking you questions, such as how you intend to use a product, or what products you've used in the past. Then, the salesperson is in a position to introduce a related product, saying something along the lines of "I'm not sure you're aware, we also have this, which will do this for you."

Savvy salespeople don't just point out whatever they're upselling or cross-selling, but focus on how it will benefit you, he says.

Effective salespeople also assume their customers want what they're offering, Mr. Mowatt says. At a restaurant, for example, you might decline a waiter's inquiry about whether you want dessert because you don't want to be seen as overindulging, he says. But if a waiter doesn't ask and simply presents the dessert menu, you might be more inclined to bite.

If you find yourself balking at a sales pitch, however, it might be because the salesperson is rattling off too much information, which can be confusing, or making too great a leap by trying to upsell a far more expensive item than you intended to purchase, says David Saxby, president of Calgary-based sales and marketing training firm Spark Communications.

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Alternatively, you might simply find that the salesperson is being too pushy.

Giving a persistent salesperson the brush-off can be tricky. Customers who defer a purchase by using the common excuse that they have to consult a spouse might be countered by a salesperson's offer to call the spouse right then to discuss the sale together. It's a cunning sales move, Mr. Saxby says, but not necessarily the response the customer had hoped for.

"If they keep persisting, the customer might simply say, 'Well, I've really got a lot more to think about. I can't make a decision right now,'" Mr. Saxby says. "That usually stops the process pretty quickly."

Alternatively, he says, "Simply saying something like 'I've got exactly what I need, thank you' - that pretty much nails it on the head. Or they can say, 'That's all I have in my budget. That's all I can afford.' At that point, a salesperson is going to have a tough time getting more money."

We accepted the various sales pitches made to us over the course of a week, and tallied how much we ended up spending on purchases we didn't initially intend to make. The total? $103.84.

Books: Picked out three books at Indigo for $75.90

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At sales counter, the cashier rings up the total and asks, "Have you heard about our iRewards program?"

Emphasizing the benefits, he explains that by purchasing a $25 discount card, you'd save 10 per cent on each book for a year. For a limited time, you would also receive additional savings if you bought the card that moment.

"You'd already be saving $19 today," he says.

The upsell: $25

The discount: $18.99

The amount spent over original price: $6.01

Beverages: Ordered a large tea at Country Style for $1.50

The server asks, "Why just tea? No breakfast for you today?"

A breakfast combo, adding a sandwich to the order, costs $3.57.

The amount spent over initial purchase: $2.07

Toiletries: Browsing at Aveda

A saleswoman offers a sampling of hot tea, which opens the conversation. She asks you what you're looking for, whether you've used the brand's products before, what type of skin you have, what products you use in your daily skincare regimen. She then identifies two different facial cleansers and explains how they suit you based on your answers. She also asks to demonstrate for you, and dabs a sample onto your palm.

"These ones are my favourite," she says, before stepping back and inviting you to "feel free to look around." Since she's gone to the trouble of explaining the products and you're enjoying the tea, you select one of the cleansers she pointed out to you. She rewards the purchase by offering a complimentary aromatherapy hand massage.

The amount spent: $38

DVD rentals: Picked out two movies at Rogers Plus at the regular price of $3.99

At the check-out counter, the clerk says, "You can get another seven-day rental for a dollar more." He points out that you can get three movies for $9.

The amount spent over the original price: $1.02

Electronics: Picked out an iPod Nano at FutureShop for $149.95

As the salesclerk rings in the purchase, he asks, "Have you heard about our product replacement plan?" He lists a number of scenarios, such as damage from electrical surges, that the store's plan will cover. "That isn't covered by the manufacturer's warranty," he emphasizes.

The amount of the upsell: $49.99

Dinner: Ordered an appetizer, main course and wine at a local bistro for $37

After clearing the table, the waiter wordlessly slips a dessert menu in front of you. Today's special is a lemon tart, he informs you before retreating.

You order the $5 tart and a $1.75 pot of tea.

The amount of the upsell: $6.75

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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