Shoppers are fickle and unpredictable. They're capable of demanding anything from tulips to pet rocks for reasons that make little sense at the time or years later.

One preference, however, has stayed the same since the invention of commerce. When offered free stuff, consumers reliably and consistently take it. In fact, the power of free is so strong that it also makes consumers act irrationally. They'll leap at it, fight for it, and even pay more in response to it.

The Power of Free

A recent New York Times article offered some useful insights into consumer reactions to free offers. The piece, excerpted from This Is Your Brain on Sports by L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, examined what happens when free T-shirts are randomly tossed or shot into crowds at games.

The free T-shirts aren't worth much to begin with. Though they promote the home team, they aren't collectors' items, they're often available at concession stands, and they usually bear the logo of a team sponsor (which further diminishes their market value). Compared to average ticket costs in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB, those T-shirts don't come close to covering the price of admission. Worse still, the shirts aren't even guaranteed to fit.

Nevertheless, fans—including season-ticket holders who pay thousands of dollars a year for access to every game—will jostle, elbow, and climb over each other to claim the apparel. One resulting lawsuit years ago called "shooting free T-shirts as projectiles into an unsupervised crowd of spectators" an "abnormally dangerous activity."

Teams still do launch free T-shirts into crowds, though—and for good reason. Doing so brings fans into the arena and, more importantly, keeps them there to spend their money on food, drinks, and other concessions.

The power of free extends far beyond the fields of play, influencing people in a variety of situations. Consumers will...

  • Participate in lengthy surveys to get "free" movie tickets
  • Choose no-annual-fee credit cards over cards with small annual fees but much lower interest rates
  • Endure supermarket waiting lines just to try small (but free) servings of a new snack or beverage

Sign up for free to read the full article.

Take the first step (it's free).

Already a registered user? Sign in now.


image of Tom Caporaso

Tom Caporaso is the CEO of Clarus Commerce, a provider of e-commerce and subscription commerce solutions. It powers, and it customizes and manages Return Saver, co-developed with FedEx, and 2-Day Shipping by MasterCard.

LinkedIn: Tom Caporaso