New marketing techniques hit the street, with direct approaches to potential customers and hard-sell tactics

«Hello, here’s a present from a slimming center. «No, thank you.» «But it’s free!» «All right then, thanks.» «Just a minute while you register your present.» The sequel is familiar to most of us, to most women at any rate. The saleswoman persuades you to pop up to the first floor for just a minute «to register your unique gift.» When you arrive, a different sales assistant starts enumerating suitable programs for your body type. As you protest and insist on receiving your gift, the assistant is replaced by a third colleague who puts Plan B into operation. «Did you know that you are overweight?» «What are those bags under your eyes?» «We have an innovative program for cellulite – don’t try to tell me you haven’t got any.» «Acne at the age of 30? Shame on you!» Even if you don’t end up signing a costly contract with the slimming center, your morale is shattered. You’ll have seen this marketing method in operation in Syntagma Square, at the top end of Ermou Street, in Patission Street, in Halandri and every shopping center in town. At first, they simply handed out advertising flyers, then discount coupons, and then gifts – all supposedly free, of course. They select their victims and hit them where it hurts. «You’ve won a free, full face and body-peeling treatment.» «Lose those extra kilos once and for all before the holidays.» They count on the woman giving in and following them to the office of the slimming center where she will sign a contract for a program for which she is asked to pay in advance. Not all slimming centers employ such methods or manners. As a source in the sector told Kathimerini, the direct marketing strategy which such centers have been using since 2000 is effective, but it must be part of an overall strategy for promoting the services a business provides and it should not be used to excess. «The goal must not be for the consumer to sign a contract but to sample the service by means of each offer and to decide for themselves whether they want to continue. Besides, the 40 staff we employ for that purpose get paid whether they get people to sign up or not. And research shows that consumers will accept such an approach on the street if they are able to determine its start and beginning and don’t feel under pressure. Otherwise, it has a negative effect.» As in other fields, there are some in the slimming center business who go beyond reasonable limits. «These are usually small, anonymous slimming centers without trained staff. They are the ones who cause problems for the whole industry,» he said. Floods of complaints Judging by the complaints received by consumer organizations, there are many such centers. Panayiota Kalapotharakou, vice president of the Greek Quality of Life Consumer Union (EKPOIZO), told Kathimerini that many slimming centers mislead consumers, who do not go to centers on their own initiative because they want to lose weight but are lured there by the offer of gifts. «We have seen young girls in our office who are very thin and who have been convinced that they have cellulite. Within a matter of minutes they had signed contracts and paid for a whole program with their credit card. Even if they stopped going because they weren’t satisfied or the program was canceled or even if the center closed down, they still had to keep paying the installments on their credit cards. The slimming center has already withdrawn the money from the bank. One chain of slimming centers closed down in May 2003, but their customers are still paying out.» Every year slimming centers rise further up EKPOIZO’s complaints list: In 2002, they were fourth on the list, with 1,638 complaints, in 2003 they climbed to third place with 2,303 complaints and this year they have prompted in excess of 2,500 complaints so far. Many other businesses also use direct marketing: From the tuition college you attended 15 years ago, the clothing store you shopped at once, even businesses you don’t know and who don’t know you. Yet they have files containing your name and address. An even more intrusive method is telephoning you at home, chiefly used at present by banks to push loans and credit cards. Who hasn’t had strangers calling to tell them about housing loan rates? «All businesses claim that they get our details from the telephone directory. You can’t prove any different,» says Kalapotharakou. «In fact, there are lists with names of consumers on sale at high prices. A typical example is the bombardment of mothers of newborn babies with advertising fliers for baby food and other items. Maternity hospitals deny giving out information about women who have given birth, but the companies get the information from somewhere. «You can stop unwanted messages from reaching you by filling out an application drafted by the Hellenic Data Protection Authority ( stating that you do not wish to be included in files aimed at telemarketing goods and services (Article 13 of Law 2472/97). As Kalapotharakou notes: «If, in two months’ time after filling in the application some firm bothers us, we can take legal action. All companies must regularly check the list held by the Data Protection Authority and remove any names it contains from their own lists.»