Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

On our last trip to Paris, Morgen and I met some friends for dinner at a restaurant that had gotten some very good reviews. The owner of the restaurant arrived at our table to take our orders, and we told him the prix fixe set menu sounded good. He looked strangely concerned, as though we foreigners couldn’t possibly know what we were getting ourselves into. “You understand,” he asked, “that this meal includes an aperitif, an entree, a main course, a dessert, and coffee…and an unlimited quantity of wine?” We nodded and assured him that we knew the routine. He smiled slyly and said, “Ah bon. There will also be…some surprises.”

A few moments later, a small dish of sausages arrived at our table—an amuse bouche, or a sort of pre-appetizer—along with some fresh bread. Then the advertised courses appeared, one by one, until finally, after coffee, the owner returned with a bottle and four small glasses in his hands and a conspiratorial expression on his face. “A little something to conclude your meal,” he offered, and poured us each a glass of marc, a potent digestif distilled from the bits of grape skin left over when wine is made. Splendid. We would have enjoyed the meal thoroughly even without the unadvertised extras, but the unexpected attention to detail left us with an even warmer feeling about the restaurant.

Little Things Mean a Lot

In New Orleans, the term that would be used to describe “a little something extra” of this sort is lagniappe, pronounced “LAN-yap.” There is an old custom among merchants in New Orleans to add a small, nearly trivial gift to an order—particularly for large purchases or repeat customers. The word “lagniappe” originally comes from the Quechua word yapay (“to give more”), which led to yapa (“gift”), and then to the American Spanish la ñapa (“the gift”). Although the term lagniappe is not used in, say, Paris, the underlying principle appears in many forms in many cultures—including the “baker’s dozen” that was once the norm in North America.

There’s a subtle yet powerful psychological principle at work here: the amount or quality of something you actually receive is not as important as how it compares to what you were anticipating. For example, let’s say you see an ad on TV for a salad steamer and think, “Wow, I have to buy this.” When your package arrives in the mail, you discover it contains not just what you ordered, but as a special thank-you gift, a certificate redeemable for a free head of lettuce. Because what you got was more than you thought you paid for, you’re likely to feel happier with your purchase and more favorably disposed toward the merchant. On the other hand, if the merchant had promised “free lettuce with purchase” and you expected a fresh head of lettuce in the box, you might be disappointed and annoyed to find that you have to make an extra trip to the store to get what you paid for. The actual contents of the package may have been the same in both cases, but your reaction was different because of the expectations you had.

As Seen on TV

This principle can be a very effective marketing tool if used correctly; it can also, of course, be abused. If you have three products that are all cheaply made and collectively worth US$10, how do you sell the set for twice that? Easy: hype up just one of the products and advertise it at the “low, low” price of “only” $20. Then, dramatically, add: “But wait, there’s more!” and mention, as if benevolently bestowing excess riches on a favorite nephew, that you’re going to throw in the other two products “absolutely free!” This strategy works surprisingly well, all because the initial step of setting expectations was executed so cunningly. This is also why some hardware and software developers in the computer industry have adopted a mantra: “Underpromise and overdeliver.” What counts is not so much the feature set and delivery date of a product, but rather how the reality compares to what your customer (or your manager) was expecting.

This is not to say, of course, that the notion of lagniappe is always or even usually misapplied; merchants who are generous—or just very savvy—may well give you more than you pay for. For that matter, you don’t even need to be selling something to apply the principle of lagniappe—it is equally effective when giving gifts, inviting friends over for dinner, or even writing a book. But for lagniappe to function most effectively, it should really be unexpected. (This is why I’m perturbed at New Orleans merchants who go out of their way to advertise “We Offer Lagniappe!” on their signs—that seems to me to be missing the point.) When the “little something extra” is a surprise, it can truly delight the recipient. —Joe Kissell

A Little Something Extra

If you enjoy reading Interesting Thing of the Day, you might also want to check out idea a day. I don’t have anything to do with this site personally, but I’ve enjoyed reading it for quite some time. Every day, a new idea—often for a new product or service, but there’s quite a variety—appears on this site. You can also subscribe to the ideas by email, which I find more convenient. Ideas are contributed by readers and are in the public domain, so anyone who thought the idea was worthwhile could attempt to implement it. Some of the ideas are really brilliant; others border on the absurd. But they’re all free, and well worth a few seconds of your time to glance at every day. You may stumble on a real gem.

More Information

If you like stories, you may enjoy the CD Louisiana Lagniappe Storytelling Collection by Rose Anne St. Romain. For Cajun recipes, try Louisiana Lagniappe by Mercedes Vidrine or Lagniappe: “Something a Little Extra Special”: Louisiana Cooking Form the Kitchen of Chef Walter’s Blue Bayou Inn by Walter G. Mazur.