Special Report: Perceptions of Suggestive Selling in Restaurants


The age-old practice of upselling can be profitable — no matter the economic age

In recent years, the art of suggestive selling, or upselling, has received more exposure since it’s strongly linked to good marketing strategies, which lead to increased profit.

By definition suggestive selling involves convincing customers to buy more expensive items than they intended. The act of suggestive selling in restaurants includes offering add-ons such as side dishes, premium alcohol brands or dessert, coffee and other after-dinner beverages. The problem is many servers don’t make the effort to upsell. And, while suggestive selling can bolster the bottom line, it can also lead to a negative perception of the industry if guest checks are inflated without any perceivable value exchange.

When suggestive selling is executed by well-trained staff, concerned with creating positive ‘moments of truth’ for customers, the guest experience is enhanced and all stakeholders benefit. In the hospitality industry, it is these moments of truth that influence employees to serve and exceed guest expectations. On the flip side, if guests feel betrayed by upselling, they are less likely to remain loyal.

In Restaurant Marketing Strategies in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study, L. Heroux (2002) measured suggestive selling as part of the “service” and “promotion (sell)” component of a restaurant’s marketing strategy. The study included systematic observations of 101 restaurants in three regions: Quebec, Ontario and Northern New York. The author found good customer ratings were generally achieved when restaurant staff showed genuine concern for diner satisfaction. It turns out customers also cared about the personal appearance of wait staff, as attire was associated with professionalism. The study also found most servers were evaluated positively on friendliness and helpfulness. However, lower ratings were given when staff didn’t listen to customer needs and requests or have knowledge of the products. Servers in the study who were directly responsible for suggestive selling were not as responsive to “non-verbal cues” such as gestures and facial expressions, which is what guests would have liked.

A study of consumer acceptance of server recommendations by Borchgrevink and Susskind (2006) focused on the “consumer-server exchange” and found there were potential predictors. Results from the study showed consumer perception of server knowledge was the reason they heeded certain recommendations. When consumers thought they were as knowledgeable as servers, there was no difference in influence. Meanwhile, when servers were perceived as relatively unknowledgeable, consumers were less likely to be persuaded. Alternately, consumers who thought they knew more than the servers were found to have a greater tendency to follow the recommendations of servers they perceived as knowledgeable (Borchgrevink et al., 2006, p. 35).

As Borchgrevink et al. (2006, p. 36) points out, the results can be explained by an analysis of restaurant consumer food knowledge and consumer willingness to take chances. Inexperienced guests, for example, may be anxious about trying new dishes and wines and stick to their regular standbys, since their lack of knowledge supercedes server recommendations. However, more knowledgeable or experienced consumers may be more curious and willing to take a chance and try new things if the server appears knowledgeable.

Suggestive selling initiatives can occur at any time during the restaurant consumer-server exchange — from the time a customer first sits down to the offering of dessert or an after-dinner beverage. A consumer who accepts a server’s recommendation at the beginning of the meal, and who is satisfied with a choice made during the meal, is more likely to consider a server’s offer of dessert.

Seasoned upsellers attest to the fact they can sometimes double a guest check, and their tip, by using suggestive selling techniques (Mowatt, 2003, p. 16). Thus, there are serious implications of lost revenue potential for restaurateurs whose staff don’t engage in the practice. Server knowledge is usually a direct reflection of an operator’s commitment to training and staff development, however the research outlined above indicates a clear relationship with guest experience and the ultimate guest check total.

Jyotesh Karnani is a graduate of George Brown College’s Bachelors of Applied Business Degree in Hospitality Operations program.


Borchgrevink, C., & Susskind, A. (2006). Consumer acceptance of server recommendations. International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration, 7(4), 21-41. doi:10.1300/J149v07n0402.

Heroux, L. (2002). Restaurant marketing strategies in the United States and Canada: A comparative study. Journal of Foodservice Business Research, 5(4), 95. Retrieved from Hospitality & Tourism Complete database.

Madison Publications Ltd. (2009). Staff ‘suggestive selling’s boosts profits, says report. Hospitality  Ireland, (62), 54. Retrieved from Hospitality & Tourism Complete database.

Mowatt, J. (2003). How to upsell without turning off your customer. Cooking for Profit, (628), 16. Retrieved from Hospitality & Tourism Complete database.


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