CASE ASSIGNMENT: Ron Popeil
Wheels, Deals, Has Mass Appeal
At Age 71, Ron Popeil is an avid inventor, tireless entrepreneur, clever marketer, and master salesman all in one. He just happens to be an American icon, too. The godfather of the infomercial, Popeil even has his famous Veg-O-Matic on display in the Smithsonian Institution as an American cultural artifact. His other famous products include the food dehydrator, the Ronco spray gun and the Popeil Pocket Fisherman.
As a teenager, Popeil helped his father sell his kitchen gadgets at local Woolworth’s and later, in the 1950s, on the Chicago fair circuit. That is probably why his famous shtick, which included such memorable catch phrases as “But wait, there’s more,” “Price so low,” and “Operators are standing by”, always seemed like a blend between sincere eccentric inventor and excitable carnival barker. The combination suited him well and brought him enough financial success that he could afford to take his act to television. In the 1960s he incorporated Ronco, and its name became synonymous with gadgets like the smokeless ashtray and Mr. Microphone.
Regardless of the product he is selling or the catchy pitch phrases he invents on the fly to sell them, Popeil is always sincere. "The easiest thing to do in the world is to sell a product I believe in," he has said. "If I spent two years creating a product, conceiving it, tinkering with it, I can get up and sell it. Who can sell it better than the guy who invented it?” Len Green, a professor in entrepreneurship at Babson University, says, “Ron is one of a kind. He is different from the rest because he not only invents; he sells. Most entrepreneurs come up with a concept and then give it to others to manufacture or sell. He’s his own best salesman.”
Though Popeil suffered his fair share of flops, like spray-on hair and a brief bankruptcy in 1987, he has always managed to bounce back. Returning from bankruptcy, he relaunched the popular food dehydrator in 1990, and eight years later he designed and sold his most successful product ever, the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ Oven. Having sold over seven million units, for four installments of $39.95 each, the rotisserie alone has grossed over $1 billion in sales. During the taping of the infomercial for that product, the live studio audience was treated to yet another of Popeil’s catch phrases that has become part of the fabric of American speech. “Just set it and forget it!” is now used to sell all kinds of non-Popeil products, from VCRs and digital video recorders to ovens and coffee makers.
Through the medium of television, Popeil was able to reach tens of millions of people. With an innate ability to invent or improve on everyday household products, his live product demonstrations captured the imaginations and dollars of generations of consumers. In 1976, he was even the subject of what was probably Dan Aykroyd’s most famous bit on Saturday Night Live. Parodying Popeil, Aykroyd hawked “Rovco’s Super Bass-O-Matic ’76,” which was capable of turning bass or any other “small aquatic creature” into liquid without any “scaling, cutting or gutting.”
Having recently sold Ronco to an investment group for over $55 million, and accumulated a personal net worth of over $100 million, Popeil has had the last laugh. He will continue to serve as a product developer, pitchman, and consultant for the new company and already promises an even bigger hit than the Showtime Rotisserie. Having identified a market of over 20 million Americans who fry turkeys every year, Popeil says he has a new fryer on the way that will make it possible to safely fry a 20-pound turkey in 70 minutes – indoors. Given that he has created over 150 products and invented personal selling via the mass marketing medium, there is little reason to doubt him.
As Barbara Gross, professor of marketing at California State University, Northridge, states, "His success speaks for itself; probably that has more to do with his personality. He's comfortable and sincere. He comes across like he really believes in it. When you hear him talk, you never feel like he's lying to you."
1. What does Ron Popeil bring to personal selling that makes him so effective?
2. What trade sales promotion tools does he use? Why does he use that when he is selling direct to consumers?
3. Explain how Ron Popeil’s selling tactics allow him to achieve the desired objectives of sales promotions.
4. Do you think it is likely that America will ever see someone like Ron Popeil in the future? Why or why not?