Sales lessons from the “Onion Johnnies”

23 March 2022
By Nick Lidington

The “Onion Johnnies" offer a rare insight into selling as they have been coming across to the UK and selling their onions since around 1830 and the last one(s) finally stopped around 2004.

Why did they do it?

Their natural french market was saturated with produce and the price they would get for their onions would be ruinously low. The answer was to find a new territory not saturated with their product. That was the UK.

Given that the UK was well used to growing its own brown onions why would the British be interested in buying onions from “Johnny foreigner"(see note) The Onion Johnnies were able to sell their onions to the UK market because they knew they had a better product compared with the local onions. That is still true to this day where all the top chefs sing the praises of the pink onions from Roscoff – Roscoff onions.

The Onion Johnnies were committed sales people, they mostly spoke no English, left home for six months of a year and literally knocked on everyone’s front door to sell in their native French tongue. True commitment and cold calling! if they did not sell their onions they did not eat. If they did not “get on with" the British at a personal level, they did not sell sell their produce – people buy from people! A beret and often a stripey top marked them out as a typical french person selling great tasting onions to the British. The archetypal french person to the British is still this caricature.

Summarising the learning points from the Onion Johnnies?

  1. You have to actively SELL your products, they don’t sell themselves.
  2. People buy from people or the influence of people
  3. Your product needs to have something your customers actively value or want
  4. Commitment to your product is essential
  5. Not every lead or prospect will buy – you have to sell to all to find out
  6. Find new territories

Johnny Foreigner term

(the term “Onion Johnny" almost certainly derives from the british colonial days where anyone not British was referred to as a “Johnny foreigner" and persisted long after WWII in the same way that many indian words were / are still used as a hangover from the Raj days. Although others say that all the onion sellers were called Jean and therefore in the UK called Johnnies.)

Now K4B is taking the Onion Johnny sales lessons…

Sales Lessons 3 and 4 made us design Merak

Lower cost self-service touchscreen hardware mostly “does the job" but with the elegance of a dustcart. See the PC on a pole below…

Self service touchscreens and kiosks have become part of everyday life along with electronic payment. checking-in, ID validation etc. To be economically viable though, it needed lower cost hardware solutions. But, until now, lower cost has meant dull and boring.

  • Sales lesson 3 – the industry needs a better product – Merak kiosk.
  • With a similar price tag to the dull pedestal kiosk it is infinitely more desirable to use.
  • Why would you boring screen on a pole when you can buy the great looking Merak at the same price?
  • Sales lesson 4 helped us influence the design –  we consulted with one of our existing customers as to what’s important in a kiosk for them and at what price.

The Result is the 21.5" Touchscreen Merak…

Dull looking touchscreen PC on a pole…

The stylish Merak with similar pricing