During a trip through South America in 2006, I took the overnight bus nine hours north from Lima to Trujillo in search of a glimpse of the Moche and Chimu cultures, which pre-date the Inca. My plan was to explore the ruins of Chan Chan, capital of the Chimu kingdom, and then make a day trip to Chiclayo for a visit to the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipan, which we know in English as the Museum of the Lord of Sipan.
I did not expect to get a marketing lesson in the bargain.
But on my first afternoon, as I wandered the Plaza de Armas, I found myself dodging one vendor after another. Each wanted to shine my shoes, and each made a pitch based on a sympathy play. Señora, I have seven children. Señora, my mother is ill. Señora, my wife is blind. A closet full of shoes couldn’t have produced enough income to salve the misery passing before me. And then I met a man who adopted a different business model.
“Señora,” he said, his eyes full of a sadness that offered, rather than asked for, pity. “Your shoes are very dirty.”
There was no debating that point. But as I started to explain, there was also no point in cleaning my shoes a day before they’d be put through their paces on the dusty grounds of Chan Chan. I was about to promise that I’d come back the next afternoon when I saw that this vendor, far from being discouraged, was beaming at me.
“Ah, señora! If you are going to Chan Chan tomorrow, you must let me clean your shoes today.” This was a decision, not a request. He was already setting up his stand, and he brandished a plastic bottle full of a clear pink liquid. “I have a special finish to put on them that will repel the dirt and dust. If we use this now, your shoes will be protected tomorrow.”
Well, I know when I’ve lost a debate. And it’s a good thing, too, because that clear pink liquid kept my shoes free of archaeological dust all through that trip.
It’s worth remembering that regardless of where we live and how many advantages we enjoy, our transactions with people who are less fortunate materially don’t always come down to how much they need and how much we’re willing to give. Sometimes, we’re the ones who need help, and they’re best equipped to provide it. We’re not on equal economic footing, but our interests converge more often than we may realize. And by working together, we can get to a point where all our profit margins—not unlike my shoes—look a lot sharper.