Thursday July 12, 2007 | About a decade ago, I got a job selling electronics at Sears. I don’t even really know, now, if Sears is still a big outlet for televisions, stereos and all that but back then it was a pretty plum job. I actually quit school to go do that for a semester.


Anyway, my boss sent me home with videos one day that I was required to watch. They were sales seminars on tape — lessons on how to get people to buy big-ticket items. And I’ll never forget one of the main points the salesman giving the presentation made.

You see, we were required to try to sell extended warranties on virtually everything in the store. The guy in the video told me one way to get people to commit to buy a big-screen television was to somehow manipulate them into an argument about whether they wanted to buy the warranty or not.

You see, he said, if you get them to argue about whether to buy the warranty, they’d have already taken the step and decided to buy the big screen.

It’s a principle that was engraved in my brain at that point and one that I’ve been honing in the decade since. Someday soon, I’m hoping, it will become a true little nugget of wisdom. It’s simple: You should try to be smart enough to position yourself so that you are the one who gets to decide what it is you are arguing with someone about. If you decide what the debate is, you have the ultimate power to passively lead someone to accept a broader conclusion.

If they’re debating whether to get the extended warranty, for example, they’ve accepted they’re buying the big screen. If they’re arguing with you about whether the city should raise its campaign contribution limits or not, they’ve accepted there should be campaign contribution limits. If you can get people to argue about what kind of punishment a company should face for building an office tower too high, you have successfully gotten them to admit that the company should be punished at all.

Most importantly, if you realize you’re in the wrong debate, get out of it as fast as you can and change it to the one you really want.

By the time I’m an old man, I may finally know how to put this principle to use. Maybe I’ll manipulate my elderly wife into arguing against letting me put cheese on my hamburger even though she probably shouldn’t let me eat the hamburger at all.

Donna Frye didn’t need near as long, though. Her move Tuesday was one of the shrewdest decisions I’ve seen her make in years. And she exemplified the principle perfectly.

The city councilwoman decided Tuesday that she would let the mayor veto the City Council’s ban on Wal-Mart Supercenters — a ban she herself had passionately supported.

You should listen to her interview on KPBS here.


Frye adroitly realized that the debate that was occurring — and more importantly, was going to occur — about banning Wal-Mart’s behemoth stores from rising inside city limits was not one with which she wanted to be involved. It was a loser that had only negative consequences for her.

Wal-Mart and its supporters had rightfully cast the ban on their supercenters as a bizarre limitation of the free market. Clumsy City Council members and their labor allies did not realize — or didn’t care — that they had set it up in a way that forced them to argue that the city should discriminate against one particular company.

After all, the ban curiously excluded stores like Costco. Something’s just plain off if a massive multinational and extremely powerful company like Wal-Mart can argue successfully that it’s being discriminated against.

This brought free-market supporters into the debate. Even a cool-headed analyst like our own Rich Toscano — normally not inclined to jump into local political debates — found himself arguing against the ban because it created a “phantom tax”:

The big-box ban forces San Diegans to shop at Wal-Mart’s more expensive competitors and thus to spend more money than they would have had the superstores been allowed to exist. This effectively amounts to a tax on would-be superstore shoppers and a commensurate subsidy to existing businesses that charge more than Wal-Mart.

This is the last debate the City Council should have wanted to be in.

Frye recognized that. She knew, as she said on the radio, that while her colleagues on the City Council might muster a majority to pass the ban and override the mayor’s veto of the law, Wal-Mart was going to force the city to have the larger debate. And it was going to motivate people to participate in that discussion — people who might have otherwise kept their nose out of a municipal decision about whether to allow a store to rise here or there.

Frye realized there was a better way to have this debate. The most persuasive and powerful argument against Wal-Mart Supercenters is a land-use one. They are awkward behemoths that permanently eviscerate any hope that a neighborhood might become a place where people walk and enjoy their surroundings.

And neighborhoods have been known to revolt upon learning that massive Wal-Marts are rising in their bellies.

Frye recognized that. She realized that she’d have much more success joining a debate on an individual basis about whether a Wal-Mart should be in this or that place than she would trying to argue that the company simply wasn’t welcome inside city limits. It’s hard for a city to argue that strip clubs and head shops are welcome inside city limits but a place that sells cheap food is completely out of line.

People legitimately had a problem with that line of reasoning. And yet it’s the one the City Council had stumbled into.

Frye saw this clearly. And she had the courage to break with people who didn’t — people whom she considers her friends and loyal supporters.

In one fell swoop, she altered the debate, sliced it into one she knew she could help control — one about the character of each individual neighborhood that Wal-Mart may target.

Shrewd. Very shrewd.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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