Arts & Culture News

The Art of the Pitch at the State Fair of Texas

Allison Plake
Alicia O’Connell stands in the male-dominated state fair showroom with her display of the Aquablade, a glorified squeegee whose makes says lasts for 10 years, leaving behind zero residue on windows for easy cleanup.
Mattresses. Rock candy. Blenders. Knives. Pots and pans. Caricature artists. These are some of the things you’ll find in the vendor halls at the State Fair of Texas. Oh, and of course, pitchmen and women roping you in with witty puns and kitschy gimmicks.

But behind the smiles and fluorescent lights that blanket the display tables are men and women working tirelessly to cut you a “deal” through the art of the pitch.

Stuart Mayo has a prime spot at the corner booth inside the Embarcadero building where he sells a set of Quikut knives, which promise to make 100 sandwiches out of a single tomato.

“I’ll give you $150 worth of knives for $40,” Mayo shouts as the crowd edges closer to the table. “I’ll even throw in the plastic bag for free.”

Mayo has been coming to the State Fair of Texas since he was a baby and met his wife while working as a pitchman.

"You have to find out what their needs are, and you have to listen because if you don't listen, then you don't know what to sell." – salesman John Anderson

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“I started doing this back in 1987, and I just kept doing it,” Mayo says. “If this was an easy business, everyone would do it.”

Around the corner from Mayo’s booth, John Anderson sits surrounded by colorful television displays of hummingbird feeders and a large banner behind the table that boasts the "best hummingbird feeder ever!"

“Hello there, do you like birds? Well, we have a feeder that is made right here in America,” Anderson explains to anyone who pauses to listen.

Anderson chuckles and laughs with the crowd as he gets people to hold the feeders and drop them on the floor, promising their indestructibility.

After 40 years as a pitchman, Anderson believes there is an art to the pitch — one that requires quick wit and psychology.

“Psychology, absolutely,” Anderson says. “You have to find out what their needs are, and you have to listen because if you don’t listen then you don’t know what to sell.”

Almost all of the vendors in these halls offer some outrageous deal that simply cannot be found elsewhere. Buy one, get one freebies. Lifetime warranties. You name it.

Where there’s food, there’s usually a crowd. After cracking eggs into the nonstick pan of the Smart Living ceramic cookware set, Matt Marsella gently blows on the silky smooth, cooked eggs as they slide onto a plate.

“See how easy that was?” Marsella asks. The small crowd nods along in amusement.

Normally retailing for $250, this set specially priced at $200 is a “steal,” complemented by a set of pots “for free.”

Marsella’s pitch is strategic. Demonstrating the value in the product is key to sealing the deal.

“If you get them to hold the product, laugh and like you, then they will buy it,” Marsella says. “I never worry about if they are coming back.”

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Matt Marsella sells Smart Living cookware at the state fair.
Allison Plake

For the past five years, Marsella has traveled to home shows and fairs across the U.S. He says working in the industry is very flexible, but the pitch has to be your own.

“It is your own creative art, and if people steal it, that's a problem,” Marsella says. “We all set up at the same places, so we all know each other.”

Alicia O’Connell stands in the male-dominated showroom with her display of the Aquablade, a glorified squeegee that lasts for 10 years, leaving behind zero residue on windows for easy cleanup.

O’Connell began pitching at the Iowa State Fair when she was 16, selling hair accessories and clothes. Now 23, she works with a few different vendors traveling around the country to sell home-based products.

“You have to be interesting, informal and to the point where the average person can understand the value of the product,” O’Connell says.

Pitching at shows is not for everyone, and the travel can be tedious. But for someone like O’Connell, it’s the perfect job.

“I get to travel all over the country, and I am not in a position to have a home base. I am very fickle,” O’Connell says.

Depending on when you visit the State Fair of Texas, you might miss the pig races or the petting zoo, the funnel cakes or the fried Fruit Loops, but you can always count on the pitchmen and women to find you that perfect product that you didn’t know you needed.