It’s Not About the Gumball

You know those gumball machines where you put in a quarter, turn the knob, and watch the ball roll down the spiral tray into the bottom? You can buy a bag of 680 of those gumballs online for $22.99, or $0.03 per gumball.

Why are we content with such a huge (833%) markup? For one thing, a quarter isn’t a lot of money. One coin for one gumball seems logical. For another, we’re usually buying it for a child and their joy in receiving a gumball is worth much more than a quarter.

But the real reason is we’re sold on the experience. First we’re drawn by the sight of it—a bright machine with a clear globe full of multicolor circles. Some even have lights. It looks like fun to turn the lever, hear the click, guess what color you will get, and most of all, watch the ball spin down the spiral tower and into the metal flap that hasn’t been cleaned since a decade before COVID.

They could just have a grey metal box with white stenciled letters at the top that said “GUMBALLS,” and a coin slot and an opening at the bottom. You drop in a quarter and instantly a white ball of gum clinks out. The end result is exactly the same, but they probably would sell 99% less.

Why will we grossly overpay for lousy gum that’s bad for our teeth and turns hard in 20 seconds?

  1. Pressure from the highly motivated 5-year-old buyer present.
  2. How we present things often makes all the difference, not just in business, but in communication, relationships, accomplishment—even food. Chefs arrange food on the plate intentionally. Even the most common cafe garnishes their plates.
  3. We aren’t always buying what we think we’re buying. It’s not the gum, it’s the 30 seconds of fun.

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