Web Informant #297, 20 August 2002:

Would you like fries with that?




In his book "Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser talks about how McDonald's employees working the registers routinely ask customers on whether they want to order larger-sized drinks or suggest other additions to go with their orders. This process, called an upsell or cross-sell, has been enshrined in the phrase, "You want fries with tthat?" (I would love to cite the definitive origin of this phrase, but after plowing through several dozen Google screens, I decided to punt and continue with the rest of this essay.)


What is interesting is, according to the book, the fast food registers are programmed to light up buttons that represent these suggestions, making it easier for the minimum-waged help to find their way through the upsell process. Since my tenure at McDonalds was back in the early 70s and before registers were anywhere beyond just mechanical cash drawers, I will take Schlosser's word on this.


McDonald's found that profits increased on a per-customer basis and the upsell strategy was a success. Did you know that the average small soda has nine cents' worth of syrup in it? But worse, the larger soda that typically sells for an additional 30 cents or more has just 12 cents' worth of syrup. Those pennies add up. Think about this the next time your kid asks for a drink at the movies, where the prices are even further inflated.


The same thing (upsells, not overpriced drinks) is happening on the web, only this time the technology is more sophisticated and as a result, somewhat more complex and less obvious. The technology, available from LivePerson.com and others, brings up a pop-up window with an offer from a sales representative to chat with you and turn you from a potential buyer into a customer and close the sale.


This seems to be working, according to a New York Times' article this week. A site using LivePerson called Technoscout.com found that the live chats generated an average order of about $40 more than orders without the chats. And these "proactive chat" sessions, meaning that the chats weren't just initiated by the customer but by the software automatically, generate half the site's sales now. That ain't no cream soda, folks.


There are two things that complicate the analogy of the "want fries with that" model between the web and what McDonald's does. First, pop-up windows by design are annoying and web site designers should be taken out collectively and be flogged with their mouse cords until they stop using them. They are a distraction, and a lot more waste of my time than the fast food counterperson asking a simple question. Second, if you decide to implement the "fries" upsell chat model, you will find that you need to train your staff a heck of lot more than just punching the right buttons on their cash register keypads. Doing a live chat during the purchase process requires different skills than answering the phone, and the folks at Technscount found that the reps closing sales rates plummeted. And third (well, there are three things), customers who aren't chat-friendly are going to get into trouble.


With my teenage daughter, chatting is a way of life. She logged into her IM account about 90 minutes after returning from a summer away from the computer at camp -- and I consider those 90 minutes a small victory at that. My high school students never log off -- they just create more intricate and amusing "away" messages that get passed around their friends like some new urban legends. But this essay isn't about IM and chatting, but upselling fries.


I tried out LivePerson on Technoscout's site and got  to chatting with Brandy, who was eager to answer my questions and help me navigate the site. (Those are the words that came up on my screen. I know what some of you are thinking, and I can tell you that there are some places that chat applications will be very big revenue generation tools. But try to keep your mind out of the gutter.) To my amazement, within a few seconds Brandy actually answered my question accurately and concisely, and while I didn't buy the item, I was reassured that it would work as advertised.  More amazingly, it actually worked on my Macintosh, the ultimate test in software compatibility. But I still found the popups annoying.


Web technology for upsells still has a long way to go. But used properly, it can really increase sales and increase customer satisfaction at the same time. No small feat for a single technology, to be sure. In the meantime, after reading the rest of "Fast Food Nation," I probably will stick to getting fries from my grocery store for the time being.


To subscribe, send a blank email to

To be removed from this list, send a blank email to

David Strom
+1 (516) 562-7151
back issues
entire contents copyright 2002 by David Strom, Inc.
Web Informant is ® registered trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress.