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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

upsell

(2000’s? | businese | “sell,” “unload more product”)

Confession: As far as I can remember, I never heard this word before last Sunday morning, on the radio, in a talk given by Angie Hicks of Angie’s List, warning of businesspeople (landscapers, in this case) trying to sell you more services than you want. This points to the crucial question about upselling: Is it a favor to customers, offering what they want, only more and better, or is it second cousin to a scam — a way to boost profits on the backs of unwary or overly obliging consumers? Depends on whom you ask. The word was and still is most commonly used among salesmen and marketers, and they take pains to treat upselling as a great boon to the consumer, merely an unselfish attempt to alert us to the advantages of buying more (and, coincidentally, spending more). A word to the wise, etc. Consumer advocates take a much dimmer view of upselling, regarding it as a pushy or sneaky way to extract more money; many consumers consider it a turn-off.

The term means two different things in common use. One is getting a client to buy a more expensive kind of whatever he’s buying, like a fancier bottle of wine (or, failing that, a case of the cheap stuff) or the next car model up the scale. The other thing it means is convincing the customer to buy things that go with whatever he happens to be buying, like French fries with a hamburger or extra batteries with a watch. The latter is also called “cross-selling,” and while some people insist on the difference, most regard “Do you want fries with that?” as a fundamental example of upselling. It is close to “upgrade” but not quite the same; as a noun, it grazes in the same paddock as “pitch.”

The word has never been all that precise grammatically. Used indiscriminately as a noun or verb; as a verb, it may be transitive or intransitive. When it takes an object, the object may be a product or a person. And it can take on prepositions: “Upsell to” means basically the same thing as “upsell,” but it has a different significance from “sell to,” because when you “upsell to,” the object of the preposition will be not the customer, but the higher-end product. Like a lot of modern words, those who use it prefer to elide, nay, jettison tiresome grammatical distinctions. For the legal eagles among you, the Code of Federal Regulations defines the term in the context of telephone sales (2004 revision): “soliciting the purchase of goods or services following an initial transaction during a single telephone call. The upsell is a separate telemarketing transaction, not a continuation of the initial transaction.” And it can even do spot duty as an adjective, as in “upsell items” (items you can pitch to the customer as an upgrade).

How modern is it? LexisNexis shows that it wasn’t used in the mainstream press before 1990, although it did turn up in magazines with “marketing” or “advertising” in the title. Sales lingo it was and ever shall be, but it seems to be growing more common every decade, and I found cites in major U.S. newspapers (with explanations) by the mid-1990’s. Oddly enough, the first uses on LexisNexis date from the late 1970’s, in the Canadian press.

I’m not sure what the old word for this was, maybe because “upselling” is what we used to call “selling.” Salesmen have always tried to get you to buy more or better, or to unload items with a higher profit margin. It was what salesmen did, and we didn’t need a special word for it. But the science (ulp!) of marketing demands its own vocabulary, its own fine (or blurred) distinctions, and it shall have them.

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