Business Insider Edition

8 tricks bars use to get you to spend more money, according to a bartender

Emma Witman , Business Insider US
 Aug 31, 2019, 06:39 PM
Experienced bartenders like author Emma Witman are well versed in the art of upselling.
Emma Witman
  • Experienced bartenders can be experts in getting patrons to spend more money than they intended.
  • Fluffy language, exclusive holiday cocktails, and happy hour "deals" are simple ways bartenders can walk away with a bigger tip - and you walk away with a larger-than-anticipated bill.
  • Upselling is a common trend across industries - and bars are no exception. Make sure to ask for well spirits if you're trying to avoid an up-charge.
  • Here are eight tricks to look out for on your next trip to your local bar, according to a bartender.
  • Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.

With bottom-line sales being the name of the game, it's no secret - bartenders like me are adept in the art of getting you to spend more money.

You may not even realize the subtle ways we're influencing you to spend more money. Some techniques are in your face, like giving long, descriptive language for cocktails that make you more likely to order one. Others are invisible by design, like taking the dollar signs out of menus, distancing yourself from the idea that you're spending money.

If you're aim is to have as budget-friendly of a night as possible, you'll want to watch out for these eight techniques next time you're ordering a drink.

Here are some of the tried and true ways my bartender peers and I get you to increase the tally on your bar tab.


At some bars, you'll rarely see an actual dollar sign on the menu

Getty Images

Studies show that guests feel more comfortable with what they're about to spend if they're not reminded that they're spending money.

Former New York Times reporter Sarah Kershaw explained the phenomenon in a 2009 article:

"In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu," Kershaw wrote. "Not only will it scream 'Hello, you are about to spend money!' into a diner's tender psyche, but it can feel aggressive and look tacky."

That means this: You'll rarely see an actual dollar sign on the menu.


Bartenders will use elegant-sounding language to describe simple drinks and entice you to order another

Rather than gruffly asking people at the bar "Hey, you want another?" a common technique to encourage additional drinking is using flowery language.

Things like "May I refresh your glass of wine?"

That way, the only refined answer is, clearly, "Absolutely, you may."

The elevated vocabulary extends to describing the cocktails as well. Rather than saying a cocktail is "nice," an experienced bartender will use words like "complex," "inventive," or "delightful."

And there is never "juice" in the daily punch. Only our finest fresh-squeezed citrus.


We'll try to upsell you off the bat

Upselling is a sales technique you see across industries.

At a car dealership, the salesperson might try to "upsell" you flashy add-ons like leather seats, window tinting, or chrome-plated wheels.

And at corporate chain restaurants, upselling is so essential that it's often codified in the script to upsell when you greet the guest.

Regardless of whether you're at a chain restaurant or a local mom-and-pop, you'll be upsold on your choice of spirit by any experienced bartender or server.

I'm rather horrible at doing this, so I tend to default to popular spirits I'm most likely to get the nod of approval for. I've found that Tito's vodka is a reliable upsell, even if it's not as lucrative as higher-tier spirits like Ketel One or Grey Goose.

And I keep the script simple. "Tito's OK?"

If you want to avoid falling victim to an upsell, the best thing to do is specify when you order that you want whatever is in the "well," i.e. the cheapest spirit of choice.


If you're celebrating something, you will be aggressively upsold

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Perhaps you think it's worthwhile to mention whatever you're celebrating in the hopes of a freebie.

More likely though, we will try to upsell you on the most expensive Champagne. You've been warned.


Holiday cocktails and other themed drinks are often pricier variations on generic, cheaper drinks

Christmas. A time for family. A time for cheer. A time for spending.

Be especially wary of holiday cocktails. They're most likely overpriced slight variations on an otherwise far cheaper mixture.

For example, that "Christmas Royale" you ordered will be more expensive than a Kir Royale - a simple French cocktail with creme de cassis and sparkling wine - but the only difference is a candy cane on the rim rather than a raspberry in the glass.


Some bars offer customers salty snacks that will make them thirsty

As Cosmo Kramer once famously said on "Seinfeld" as an extra filming a bar scene in a movie, "These pretzels are making me thirsty."

Bars commonly offer customers snacks, and there's a common theme among those bar snacks: salt, in an attempt to stimulate your thirst.

So if those pretzels do make you thirsty, we can only hope the thirst gets transmitted to us in the form of ordering more booze, rather than water.


They offer drink "deals" that actually get you to spend more

Universal Images Group/Getty Images

One thing about being at a bar is this: We (mostly) don't care what you're drinking.

We care about the bottom-dollar amount you end up spending, since - presuming you're a kind patron - we'll be pocketing 20% of whatever that amount is.

For that reason, you can usually get a great deal for a shot tacked onto a beer, making it a win-win for the two of us.

You get more booze, but for less than you'd pay to order separately. We can count on a higher tip than if we'd only sold you the beer.


Rather than cut you off, we'll sell you the less-strong stuff

Sometimes, a patron is teetering on the cusp of needing to be cut off.

And in most states, we're even legally obligated to do that if your intoxication level is becoming physically apparent.

So to keep you spending money - and us out of legal trouble - bartenders will suggestively sell drinks with lower alcohol by volume to guests who want to keep spending, but need to slow down.

A few good examples are light beers, or more refreshing spritzer-style cocktails made with aperitifs or club soda, like an Aperol Spritz or mojito.

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