When Free Giveaways Backfire

I love free giveaways, and last Sunday Harvey’s (a Canadian burger chain) was giving away its original burger free from 10:30-3 pm. I swung by, looking forward to munching on the beefy goodness, and gave up when I saw the lineup was out the door and down the sidewalk. Not being willing to wait for 20-30 minutes for a $3 burger, I shrugged my shoulders and headed to my office to work.

Years ago when I was an summer intern at an Ottawa tech company, there was a big promotion at a local bar with free beer. Tons of young people went out for the night and if there was any free beer available, I didn’t get any of it. When I asked servers there, they kept saying “later, later”. Then suddenly it became “its all gone”.

The obvious defense if someone complains about something free is “well, do you want your money back?” Mike and I don’t charge visitors to our blog a dime, so there’s a limit to how much complaining we’d put up with from a visitor. HOWEVER, businesses that decide to do free giveaways do them for a reason, and I think they’re sometimes undermining themselves when they do them poorly.

In the case of Harvey’s and the bar, they clearly are saying to their customers: “Come try our product free, its so good you’ll become a regular”. However, in both cases when I went to sample their product, I was dissatisfied. So their free giveaway alienated a potential customer instead of converting them. I never went back to that bar, and my view of Harvey’s has shifted a bit to viewing it as a place with long lineups and slow service.  I’ll still eat there, but when I’m trying to decide where I want to go out to grab some grub, I’m sure it’ll factor into my decision on some level.

In both cases, if they wanted to give away a free sample, they should have tried to make the experience as good as possible, even if that means having more staff on hand, or more samples to give away. Otherwise why even bother?  I can’t see the point of teasing people with “we have something for free / cheap” then making it difficult for them to try it.

In terms of our blog, we’ve never hit the point where we stop listening to someone complaining (Mike always forwards the complaints with the most cursing in them to me – although usually we just laugh). Even though visitors to the blog don’t pay us directly, we like traffic and higher traffic translates directly into more options for monetizing. They may not be paying customers, but we want visitors to have the best possible experience.  If they complain, we welcome that as an opportunity to learn how to improve what we’re offering.

12 replies on “When Free Giveaways Backfire”

I had an experience over 15 years ago with getting free gas. It was sponsored by a radio station I listened to. I decided to try to get the free gas (the gas station was in the city I was living in, not far from my house). The line was really, really long, about 5-6 blocks of cars. At one point, a gas attendant came out (after I had already waited almost 2 hours in line), and said that there probably wouldn’t be enough gas for everyone! Luckily, he was telling this to people way far behind me. (Not lucky for them!)

At the time, I was willing to wait for the gas. The funny thing is that I never bought gas from this station previously because their prices were always high and even with the one-time free fill-up, I never bought gas from them. Their prices remained high and my experience getting the free gas was not the best. They never made a paying customer out of me! 🙂

You’d think that after Harvey’s had that debacle over the Angus burger coupon back in April that they’d learn their lesson on how to run a promotion. Apparently that’s not the case.

We’re actually thinking about putting up a “visitor feedback” page with all the hate mail we get. It’s only been 2 or 3 “hate mail” messages so far, but they were… passionate.

My wife worked for a company once, and we would comment (practically every week) that “It’s almost as if upper management has no business training or experience at all!”
This was tongue in cheek, because in actuality, they really >didn’t< know what the he** they were doing. This general cluelessness would lead them to constantly pulling stunts like the “Free Burgers If You Are Willing To Wait Two Hours” or the “Free Gas — Until We Run Out” described above.
Owning and running a business is no insurance that the proprietors have any common sense, as “Harvey” has demonstrated!

I can see why you get a bad impression of Harvey’s, but you can’t accuse them for a lack of employees (in my experience anyways).

I attended the free burger event last year, and waited about 15 minutes in line to get my burger, and the line was out the door when I got there. They were pretty efficient, and every counter had an employee. More employees could not have been working. I think it’s just a problem with really popular promotions that everyone shows up, and there is no possible way to serve the food fast enough to keep up with demand.

Karl: Truth be told I wondered if that might be the case. I didn’t bother going and looking at their setup inside, so maybe the line was moving quickly and they were doing the best they could.

I attended free burger day this year and as Karl said, the line was really fast. You have to remember that burgers only cook so fast, so there is a maximum capacity for their grills, there is bound to be hold-ups.

I think society in general is getting a little too over the top with special promotions. People waiting outside 27hours for a book signing I was at recently (I was only there a few), or overnight at future shop on boxing day to save $100 on a Camera? I remember people paying $2500 for a PS3 when it came out too. Come on people! /rant off


I agree with Cheap that it’s up to the company/bar etc to manage the promotion so that clients have a positive experience. Happy clients will come back.

Yes, burgers take time to cook but I think they should experiment with just offering them at a discount rather than free in order to reduce the demand to a manageable level.

Offering free stuff is just asking for trouble (especially when Mr. Cheap shows up hungry). 🙂

i was quite impressed how they had burgers all over the place cooking at the Harveys in Home depot in brantford the service was very efficient friendly and evryone ordered soemthing. not just a milk either.. it was a great experience. the store manager there is terrific though. if your poutine isnt melty he ll make a new one straight away no questions..

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