Shovel or Hole

I heard a phrase:  People don’t buy shovels, they buy holes.

It’s taken me a very long while to respond to this because it sounds so good.  It rolls off the tongue and has an unexpected, logical quality.  It seems right, doesn’t it.


The only problem is that it is completely, utterly, 100% wrong.

People don’t buy holes.  They don’t go to stores and ask for holes.  They don’t imagine holes on the way to the store.  They buy shovels, plain and simple.  They buy the shovel to make a hole, but that is for later.  What is on people’s minds is what they know they LITERALLY need.  They need a shovel to achieve their goal.

When I was at Intuit, every marketing manager said we should put pictures of happy people on the website.  Since they test everything, I was able to learn that this strategy was always a fantasy.  The winner every time?  The box.



I started telling people, “Nothing beats the box.”  But the question is why?  The answer is deeply rooted in psychology.  But here is a simple rendition of the mental model:

The person hears/sees something about Quicken.  They understand it’s something to do with money and bills and stuff.  They have seen in the store what it looks like.  It looks like a box.

Enter the internet:  They go to and see happy people.  They say, “hmm, this isn’t what I was looking for” and they click the back button.  They bounce. Then they go to Amazon and find the box.  They purchase it and DOWNLOAD the software.  No box needed.  They don’t care at that point.  Once they found the box, they knew they were in the right place.

I notice this struggle all of the time.  Marketers want to sell the dream and higher level goals.  However, people are just going to look and say, “Am I in the right place?  Im looking for ________”.  If they don’t see a literal interpretation of that, they will click the back button and bounce.

Think about the thing you sell.  Does your website say it clearly and obviously or does it couch the whole thing in “happy talk“?  The more literal you are, the more successful the site will be.

In short, don’t name your store “Holes”, name your store “Shovels” and you will make alot more money.

2 replies on “Shovel or Hole”

Similar concept. I think there is a place for solution selling, but it is AFTER they realize they are in the right place.

Whatya think?