Hiring and Growth

This Is the Secret to Turning Customers Into Lifelong Fans—And Yes, It Involves Fries

Steve Strauss Best-selling author of the Small Business Bible 
How to Increase Sales by Giving Away Free Stuff _ Small Business Marketing Tips from Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Photo courtesy of Flickr user huddleston

A new Five Guys burger place recently opened in my neighborhood. Now, if you haven’t been to one yet, you need to go. Charred, saucy burgers. Crispy, seasoned fries. Fast food perfection.

Hey, even former President Barack Obama is known to frequent the chain.

(Photo courtesy of the Obama White House Flickr account)

Five Guys began as an East Coast phenomenon that has since grown nationwide due to, among other things, tasty burgers and fries.

It’s that last word I want to talk about for a moment. Fries.

I want to single them out, not because they have the perfect salt-to-potato-to-oil ratio (which they do), but because Five Guys slyly turned the simple act of buying fries into an incredibly smart marketing lesson that any small business can learn from.

How the Five Guys fries secret works

Order some fries at Five Guys and all goes according to plan. You order, wait a bit, and then go back to the counter when they call your number. The server scoops your fries into a paper bucket and places the bucket in a brown paper bag.

Check, check, check.

And then their marketing magic trick comes into play.

Before closing the paper bag, the server takes another scoop of fries, an even bigger scoop, and just dumps it in the bag, right on top of your “regular” order. My kids and I have always been amazed at all the extra fries we get.

And then it dawned on me. We’re not really getting any extra fries, are we?

Nope. And that’s why it’s so smart.

The psychology of giving away something for free

Five Guys of course has calculated the cost of the “extra” (or second) scoop into the price of its fries. But it sure looks and feels like I’m getting something for free. I only paid for one scoop, not two! And I, like everyone Iove getting something for nothing.

When a business gives you an extra little bonus, you feel better about that business. Why?

It’s because of something called the zero price effect, coined by economist Dan Ariely. Here’s how it works:

When you pay for something, there’s a risk involved. If you don’t like it, you lose the money you spent. But when you get something for free or at a discount, the risk either isn’t there or much lower, making the thing you bought way more enticing.

It’s a great lesson for all of us, whether we’re doing the buying or selling. And once you notice it, you’ll see that many businesses do something similar, and for similar reasons.

Free fosters fans.

How to copy the Five Guys fries trick in your own business

Back when I practiced law, I always gave a free first consultation to prospective clients. Doing so served a few purposes:

  • It generated goodwill. Like the free fries trick, it helped people know that I cared about them as clients.
  • It made it easier for potential clients to take the plunge. It also made coming to see me pretty painless. You go to see your lawyer, typically, when something goes wrong. And you also know it’s likely also going to be expensive. A free first meeting negates all that.
  • It made my pricing feel competitive. When clients knew they wouldn’t have to pay for at least one session, the idea of additional sessions seemed way more manageable. 

So, how can you do something similar in your business? There are a few ways:

1. If you sell a service, give that service away for free

If you have a service-based business, the free stuff strategy could involve giving away a first visit as I did in my old law practice, or it could be offering a free service.

For instance, a housecleaner could give their best customers a free cleaning once a year. Or a massage therapist could sell a package deal—buy a series of five massages and get one for free. (This has the added advantage of getting clients to buy five massages at a time, and that is a nice payday.)

2. If you sell a product, start a loyalty rewards program

If anyone knows how to market and sell well, it’s Starbucks, and giving away something for free is core to their marketing strategy. In fact, 41 percent of all Starbucks transactions are made through its Rewards app or card.

Starbucks Rewards gives customers free drinks and goodies once they spend $125 in the store. The genius of this is two-fold.

  • It generates the aforementioned goodwill.
  • It encourages people to spend more since doing so gets them to that freebie sooner.

If your business sells a product, then you can easily do something similar. Either your loyalty program can offer a freebie based on a total dollar spend like Starbucks does, or it can be based on a number of transactions—buy nine and get the 10th free, something like that. Either way, the secret is to give people something for nothing.

A few things can make your loyalty program stand out:

Make the rewards easy to earn

No one wants to carry your loyalty card around for six months and never get anything. The quicker customers can get meaningful freebies, the happier they will be (and the more they will spend).

Offer exclusive rewards

Your best customers will appreciate feeling like they’re members of an exclusive club. Consider, for instance, handing out a freebie on their birthday, anniversary, date of first purchase, or just because. And don’t offer the same thing to non-members!

Go beyond just the things you sell.

“Free” can go many different ways. One way is to give your loyalty members access to things regular customers don’t have instead of an extra product or service.

For instance, I am a season ticket holder to my local NBA team. The team lets me enter the arena through a special door that bypasses a 10-minute line. That special door makes me feel a rockstar.

Another idea is to host a “members-only” event where loyal customers can get priority access to products. Ask yourself this: How can I make my customers’ lives more convenient? Then find a way to do that.

Remember the 3 Fs: Free fosters fans

The bottom line is that the psychology of Five Guys’ extra fries trick is brilliant. Customers love the thrill of getting free stuff, the element of surprise, and the feeling that your business really appreciates their business.

By throwing in a scoop of extra fries on top of a regular order—or something else unexpected—your customers will feel all of that. And one more critically important thing—intense loyalty.

Steve Strauss
Steve Strauss Steve Strauss is a lawyer, speaker, and USA Today small business columnist. He's the best-selling author of 17 books, including The Small Business Bible.


  • Dan

    Harbor freight does this with low cost products. I can’t count the number of screw driver, measuring tapes, flash lights etc. that I have received for free


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