February 25, 2017

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The First Free Trial

On Monday, we explored the birth of the coupon, how Coca-Cola owner Asa Griggs Candler used “free glass of Coke” tickets to help make the soft-drink to an international sensation.

Well here’s a similar story, straight out of the Why Didn’t I Think of That? Inspiration Hall of Fame.

Clockmaker Eli Terry

For the last hundred years or so, free trials have been an important part of our consumer lives. From software suites to prescription drugs, from magazine subscriptions to gym memberships, free trials give consumers a chance to try a product before committing to it, the hope being that they’ll realize they never want to live without it. But back in the early 1800’s, free trials didn’t exist.

Why would anyone just let people use their product… for free?  Well, for Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry, it was a matter of getting his product into the hands of people who might not have realized they wanted it.

In 1803, Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry introduced wooden wheeled clocks, much like those produced in Europe’s Black Forest. Terry was innovative – he made his clock parts interchangeable, and later replaced wooden wheels with brass ones. Even so, he found resistance to his clock innovations. Then, he came up with an inspiration, becoming the first American manufacturer to offer merchandise on a “no money down, free trial” basis. Terry discovered that farm families took advantage of this offer more than other customers did. They liked the clocks and tended to keep rather than return them. As a result, Eli Terry prospered. He later sold his business to Seth Thomas, who became famous as a quality clockmaker.
It’s like I said earlier this week: If you have a product that people will want, then let it speak for itself. This won’t work with everything, and it’s nothing if not a risk. But through their actions and innovative ideas, people like Terry and Candler exhibited a confidence in their product that proved infectious and helped propel their brands to commercial success.

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