The Million Dollar Pickle


Years ago, I attended a keynote speech whose main topic was customer service. The speaker’s centerpiece was “the pickle story.” To make a long story short, this guy discovered he was out of pickles just before a big Sunday cookout at his house, and made an emergency run to the closest supermarket. He arrived home, opened the jar, only to find that the top pickle appeared to have a large bite out of it. His wife confirmed the diagnosis, so he rushed back to the store again. That’s when things headed south.

He was met by surliness and indifference at the supermarket. The clerk eyed him with suspicion, and two managers were called over. They conferred, examining the pickle in question and glancing repeatedly at their customer. Clearly, they decided that if anyone took a bite out of that pickle, it was the joker who wanted a different jar. Although the store eventually replaced the bottle, the combination of terrible attitude and lengthy delay made our speaker vow never to shop at the store again.

He also vowed to spread the word far and wide. He told his guests at the cookout. He told his neighbors. He told the audiences he spoke to. I won’t attempt to duplicate the math, but he calculated that the immense hassle over a $1.50 jar of pickles cost the store not only about $10K in purchases that he and his family would have made in the following years, but an amount in the millions of dollars if even a portion of the people who heard the pickle story decided to try shopping someplace else.

Did that speaker cost the store millions in lost sales? Who knows? But there’s little doubt the story lodged in the brains of those who listened to it. I didn’t even know the guy, and I still remember the story many years later. I’m sure he had lots of great information about how good companies take care of their customers, and impressive statistics that demonstrate the effects of good service. But what’s the ONLY thing I remember? The pickle story! Likely I would have remembered the name of the supermarket chain, but it wasn’t one that served my area; I’m sure many of those who heard the story first-hand DID remember the name and stored it as an essential part of that story.

We know that stories CAN sell in part because they make our brains light up in sympathy with what we are hearing, and that anecdotes are more powerful than statistics. The pickle story is a great example of a story that will persist in the minds of those who hear it and affect the perception of the unfortunate merchant for years to come. The only luck that merchant had was that the event occurred before the advent of social media, so they were shared the indignity of being blasted on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Image via Shutterstock

  1. Alan Graner says

    A great article as usual, but I think you missed a great opportunity. The current headline, “Why Stories Don’t Sell” is a bit confusing and, in my opinion, has little to do with the text.

    I’d bet you’d get a much greater readership if you entitled it “The $10,000 pickle” instead.

    That said, the article is one worth reading, and I plan to tweet it.

    Well done.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks, Alan. I agree your title might be more compelling. Or maybe “The Million Dollar Pickle.” The original title was designed to fit into the context of a few other posts involving the staying power of stories in our brains. I’ve got a follow-on post coming, though, and maybe I can build that in.


  2. Samy G. says

    The title and the fourth paragraph led me to think you were going to claim that, like sex, steal all the attention and that, unless your product is cleverly woven into the story, the story is all that will be remembered.

  3. Laurent Marcoux says

    This story is very interesting. I think legends make products sell better when they are positiv.


  4. mrktgenius says

    Great post. Awesome story too. Its really easy to remember and the lesson is great. In this day and age customer service is everything. Treat em well and they’ll help you grow. Threat em wrong and a story like this will forever haunt you. Something as small as a pickle jar is so easy to replace. But to accuse a customer of taking a bite out of one and demanding another one is crazy!

    I don’t believe the customer is always right but I do believe the customer should always be treated well and with respect.

    Thanks for the story!

  5. j says

    I’ve heard these types of anecdotes often. For the most part I agree that most businesses must provide great service and keep the customer happy, and that if you don’t the negative consequences can be exponential. However, not all businesses in all areas have to take this into account.

    I’ll give you an example, fast food chains…. people are accustomed to a low level of service at these locations and will often times continue to frequent the location even though they get bad service/quality. I also live near a Rite-Aid (a pharmacy/convenience chain) which consistently has long lines, and the worst service and employee attitude I have ever seen. Their location and relative monopoly of the 4-5 block downtown area which they serve allows them to be profitable without a backlash.

    Marketers and business owners should understand that levels of service are dependent on relative choice for a consumer and the expectation you set for the customer yourself. One other factor to take into account is the level of expectations your customer in a given location has of that type of business.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Quite true, J. For the Rite-Aid store situation, one wonders if the local “monopoly” has allowed bad service to fester, and whether if you were someplace else and had a choice (say, CVS or Walgreens) you would instinctively avoid a Rite-Aid store. I agree that fast food chains don’t set a high expectation for service, but I have definitely avoided stores where I had experienced slow or indifferent service in the past.

      Perhaps the minimum strategy for business should be to never let service get so bad that customers spread anecdotes about it. I might be unhappy with a long wait in a checkout line, but that would affect just me. If after a long wait I got to the front of the line and the cashier said she was leaving because it was time for her smoke break, I would likely relate that story to others.


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