I formulate some of my best thoughts on my way to the office after my morning workouts.  Exiting the gym, calm and collected, ideas begin to blossom as I proceed down my well-worn path to work.  On the way, I always take note of a few things that punctuate my journey – I’ve begun to expect them.  The marquee of the curiously named Bank Leumi, the stoic façade of the Haier Building, the magazine display on the side of the newsstand at 36th street, and the tourists out front of Macy’s pulling on the locked doors and looking at their watches (note – Macy’s doesn’t open until 10am, which causes daily confusion to hundreds of travelers).

Descending into the subway at 34th street for my one-stop trip on the F train, I always walk by two young gentlemen trying to give away newspapers.  There seems to be a new set of them each week (high turnover), but there is always one representing AM New York and one representing Metro (for those of you not familiar, these two newspapers are competitors in the decidedly unglamorous free newspaper market in NYC).  Having traveled this trip nearly every day for 3 years, I can confidently say that I have a read on the predominant strategies used to move these newspapers from a lonely stack behind a phone booth into soon-to-be ink stained hands.

1) The “Here ya go”

Stemming from a misconception among newspaper handlers that a key barrier to selling free newspapers is people’s inability to reach them, the “Here ya go” is a basic technique that involves indiscriminatingly holding a newspaper directly in front of every person who walks past.  Generally seen as the lowest viable effort on the part of a newspaper handler, this method gets few incremental sales.

2) Announcing the Name of the Newspaper

A clear signal of misalignment between strategic goals and tactics, a startling number of newspapers handlers will furiously announce the name of their newspaper in an endless loop (either AM, or Metro).  For New Yorkers who commute on the subway every day, this certainly provides no new information and likely scares away as many customers as it attracts.

3) The “Good Morning”

Often combined with tactic #2, the “Good Morning” is a slightly more advanced technique to attract new customers.  Unlike tactics #1 and #2, the “Good Morning” actually speaks directly to the customer and acknowledges their existence, albeit somewhat impersonally.  Where this tactic frequently falls apart is when a handler feels compelled to say good morning to every individual person who walks by.  It’s a kind gesture, but at a rate of 10 “Good Mornings” per second – the rapid-fire outburst of greetings probably does more harm than good.

4) The Reciprocity Play

Related to the “Good Morning” – the Reciprocity Play involves the newspaper handler complimenting customers and, in exchange, expecting them to take a free newspaper.  I personally like this tactic – it hasn’t led me to accept any free newspapers, but it does boost my confidence when newspaper handler refers to me as “young sir” – or comments that I’m looking sharp.

5) Going Negative

My personal favorite – this tactic involves two dueling newspaper handlers each making empty assertions that their newspaper is superior.  For example: “AM New York – Better than Metro!”

6) Appeal to Economics

Practiced by fewer than 5% of all handlers, this higher-level strategy is the first that involves touting the contents of the newspaper.  This announcement usually manifests itself in the form of “Macy’s Coupon!” or “JCPenny Coupon!” – which in itself is clever, as the subway stop I enter is directly between Macy’s and JCPenny.  Kudos to newspaper handlers that employ this advanced tactic.

7) Appeal to Curiosity

In my five years in New York, I’ve seen fewer than a handful of newspaper handlers actually attempt to sell the textual content of the newspaper.  Granted, the content isn’t great, but isn’t this theoretically the reason why these newspapers exist?  They’re all too frequently used as make-shift umbrellas, bedding for the homeless, and packing paper for people who are moving – but when there were originally conceived, wasn’t the goal to inform people?  Why don’t we see more newspaper handlers shouting “Read all about it!” the way that their 1940’s counterparts do when we see them portrayed in movies?

How would you sell free newspapers?  And what do you think these tactics say about the times we live in?


Editor’s note (added by my girlfriend, Miranda):

8) Optimism and Excitement

The newspaper handler at the Bowling Green stop always yells, “Happy [insert day of the week here] everyone! Happy —-day!” He then references whatever is on the cover with an excited tone in his voice. I rarely ever grabbed one because my old office was only a block away and I wouldn’t have had time to read it (I also hate inky hands), but it always put a smile on my face. I think that’s a better way to start the day than by reading the contents of the dusty free newspapers (that really all say the same thing). Sometimes, though, I would grab one – knowing I wouldn’t actually read it – simply because he was a likeable guy.

Selling Free Newspapers
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