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A few years ago, I found myself duped by a mall kiosk worker selling hair straighteners. I walked away $200 poorer and with a piece of plastic that couldn’t straighten the hair on a Barbie doll, let alone that on my head.
“Damn it, I was too smart to fall for the mall kiosk trap!” I thought angrily. I’d done all the usual moves in the past — avoid eye contact, speed-walk like the soles of my shoes were on fire, the “fake phone call.” I used to dread walking past one corner of my former mall where kiosk workers sounded like deranged parrots on an infinite loop: “Can I ask you a question? Can I ask you a question?”
No, you may not.
But I had some questions for them, and recently went to a mall in the Midwest to get some answers. Mall kiosks are not an often-interrogated part of our shopping ecosystem. How do they work? Who works at them, and should we hold them accountable for their hard-sell tactics?
What I learned surprised me.
Watching Chris* work is pretty incredible.
In his 10-year span as a kiosk manager and employee, he’s sold everything from body jewelry to cellphone cases. His current item of choice is sunglasses. Chris exudes a confidence that borders on calm cockiness. He reels you in gently with a soft-spoken voice, and before you know it, you’re leaving with a purchase you barely even knew you just made.
With Chris, it starts to become clear how kiosk sales can become an art form of sorts.
“It’s just the way you vibe with people,” he explains. “Like if I wanted to stop this guy—” he stopped a trailing customer. “What’s up, buddy? How are you? How do you like that one? Nice? Let me show you a polarized pair, check these out…”
The two-minute interaction ended in an easy sale for the charismatic worker. “He just really wanted to buy because he liked the way I stopped him.”
During an average week, Chris says he makes between $1,000 and $1,500 — almost four times the amount he collected in two-week pay periods at his former Foot Locker job. Because of that, the switch from major storefronts to kiosks became a no-brainer for him.
“I basically get to make my own schedule, and I don’t have to deal with corporate stuff,” he says. “I don’t have a manager over my head at all times, and there’s freedom — it’s easier to sell that way.”
Working constant foot traffic is also a big benefit in Chris’s sales.
“You can talk to anybody,” he says. “In a store, you’ve got to wait till they come in.”
Unlike brick-and-mortar stores, kiosks have a lot more riding on a “first-impression” glance. Veronica*, the owner of a kiosk that sells scarves, says a kiosk’s sales are “100 percent” impacted by its location.
“[It’s] kind of like if you lease an apartment,” she says. “If different places become available, you can move around or change.”
Part of the leasing process includes working with mall representatives in order to find the most optimal spot. On the upper level of this Midwestern mall, there was a children’s photography kiosk that seemed to master the location algorithm. It was tucked away from other vendors yet surrounded by a Kid’s Foot Locker, Justice, Build-a- Bear Factory, and Disney Store. It was a scouting masterpiece.
“Being in the common area certainly has a lot of big pluses,” says Robbie Stark, the general manager of Fair Oaks Mall in Virginia. “You’re right in the flow of traffic, so people can’t miss you. So your visibility is very, very high.”
The mall’s leasing agents do have certain measures in place, though, when it comes to curbing direct competition between these kiosks and big-box stores.
“[The mall] can limit what you sell and put regulations on what you sell,” Veronica says. “For example, I can’t sit in front of Lush selling soap products, or I can’t be in front of Bath and Body Works selling candles.”
Stark says there are certain regulations and codes to which owners must adhere, and his leasing agents can customize lease lengths that benefit both parties.
“If we have tenants that want to stay longer and they want to sign a longer agreement, they’re going to get better financial terms,” he says. “If they want to come in really short-term, then there’s a lot more work on our end, so the financial terms are probably not going to be as good.”
Stark’s leasing agents often connect kiosk owners and entrepreneurs with products that will do well. One of the most popular items in recent months? Fidget spinners, which he calls the “perfect product.”
After that, Stark says the mall becomes a “landlord” collecting rent, and those rates vary. Chris says his manager pays between $5,000 and $6,000 per month to rent his kiosk on a year lease, but a big-box store may pay four times that amount. For a store like Nordstrom, that number could reach six figures. Many of these kiosk owners can’t afford that — and have no desire to leave the market they’re in.
“Why spend more if you’re going to make the same amount of money when you could spend less and make the same amount of money?” Chris says.
As with any business, the key to the kiosk game is making a profit. A big part of achieving that includes the art of the deal.
Chris uses this notion to hook his potential customers. While selling knockoff Ray-Bans ranging anywhere from $20 to $89, he’s not afraid to channel a little BOGO half-off action because, again, it’s about catering to his target audience.
“We get the customers like that, who want to spend $20 or $30 or maybe less than $100,” he says. “That’s where the stores lose customers because their prices are set.”
So if Chris shaves some coins off the final cost, how exactly does the kiosk break above or at even?
It’s simple. The shades you bought are actually overpriced in the first place.
“Basically what we do is we find low costs for us and then we obviously sell them for more,” he says.
This lack of transparency is one of the big reasons why kiosks are often labeled as slimy money grabs, but Veronica says it’s just part of the game.
“We’re in a free economy. No one can tell you you can’t mark up,” she says. “If you sell your product for a ridiculous amount of money, no one’s going to buy it. You self-regulate yourself.”
For Neal*, a college student who’s worked at a cellphone-case kiosk for the past eight months, his boss does the same thing after buying accessories from a third party.
“We have a certain minimum price to sell the cases,” he says. “The one with the wallet-type credit-card holder is $25 to $35.”
For the skeptical customer who’d rather buy the product on Amazon, Neal tells them, “these cases are better quality.”
Once he stopped giving me his sales spiel, I asked him flat out: would he ever buy something from his kiosk?
“I wouldn’t buy it,” he says with a laugh, admitting he prefers “good-quality,” brand-name things.
“Honestly, sometimes I feel really bad for the people. This stuff is like 20 bucks. I can’t digest it, selling this stuff for $20 or $25,” he admitted. “People are getting it, so they’re happy, right?”
If you scour the internet, there are Facebook groups and Reddit threads dedicated to customer complaints about many of these kiosk products. Some of these companies, like Sutra Beauty Inc. (which has allegedly sold some questionable flat irons in the past), even earned an F grade from the Better Business Bureau.
So do these kiosk workers ever suffer a guilty conscience?
“No,” Neal says. If someone approaches his kiosk with interest, he’ll do anything he can to make a sale.
“I’ll speak to the customer, I’ll brainwash them.”
Bottom line, Neal has to make enough money to line his pockets too. He says his daily minimum is usually $200, but this was a slow sales day, and he was starting to get stressed.
“No one is walking into my kiosk,” he says unhappily. “I gotta get some sales.”
Losing sales costs these workers and their owners money, and it’s a big reason why you see those “NO REFUND” signs on virtually all of these units.
“The money stays,” Chris says. “It’s a numbers game. If you give a refund, then you just lost $200 on those things.”
These disputes, in turn, cause headaches for mall ownership, and Stark says once it reaches his level, his hands are often tied.
“We try to help [the customer] the best we can, but... we’re the landlord, and it’s their business,” he says. “I want to see a positive outcome in the interaction. I certainly have gone to some [managers] and said, ‘You need to take care of this customer. You need to do their return,’” he says. On the flip side, many owners often say these same customers give just half of the story and the lack of return is valid. Stark tries to fairly evaluate the complaint.
“I’m not dictating to them how they do their business.”
If the situation escalates further?
“We have termination rights in our agreements,” Stark says, but adds that they’ve never terminated an agreement over bad customer service.
These kiosk workers aren’t naive to their reputation, though. They understand the labels they’ve been given, and to a certain extent they say they’re well-deserved.
“There’s a lot of people forcing their product on people, which creates that head-down, running kind of look. So they’ve done it to themselves,” Veronica says. But she says that many kiosk workers are moving away from this hard sell “so they can get people more relaxed and shopping.”
Isabelle, a first-time kiosk worker with just a few months under her belt, aimed to take a different approach. In her first month on the job, her tactic included a friendly smile, but the constant rejection started to weigh on her.
“It’s really hard to approach people, and if they do come here and you say hi and they don’t say hi back, it’s hurtful,” she says. In her first three weeks, she only made four sales.
For a veteran like Chris, this aspect of the job doesn’t even phase him anymore.
“Not just anybody can do this. You’ve got to be able to take nos a lot. You’re constantly getting put down,” he says. “If you were working here, you’d probably be ready to quit your first day.”
As shopping malls continue to shutter and retail continues to shape-shift, the future of these pesky kiosk jobs may also include some restructuring. Stark says he’s already seen some of those changes.
“We have not had as many common-area tenants this year as we maybe did 10 years ago or maybe not even that long, maybe five years ago,” he says.
For Veronica, who moved from the United Arab Emirates to the US to try her hand at retail success, she sees the problem manifested at an accelerated rate stateside.
“The buying power here in this country seems to be a lot less,” she says. “I think not much longer people are going to want to be doing this because it’s not as profitable as it used to be.”
On the other hand, Chris has no plans of retiring from the business anytime soon. If he’s forced to do so, he says his next step will be easy.
“I’d just go back to selling cars or something,” he says.
As for Neal, he is adamant that he’ll never work a kiosk job again and hopes to never even visit one, even though it’s clear that the kiosk mentality has already left a bit of a residual effect on him. In this line of work, everyone becomes a potential customer, and he couldn’t help but use one final sales tactic on me when he pulled a Hershey’s kiss from his pocket, flashed a smile and said: