Dearth of a Salesman

Just to prove I can unload invective as well as sweet reason, as long as my targets are anonymous idiots, I had a fun time today going to pick up a leaf blower (having discovered that our relatively large new yard and its many maple trees is pretty much a Sisyphean job to rake this time of year).

1) Idiot #1: the high school kids who were weaving in and out of traffic to collect money for some worthy cause. I hate it when anybody does this, but these kids were especially dumb about it: the one kid with his bucket was actually standing in front of a line of cars in a busy main road waiting for some pedestrian off to the side to get out his wallet.

2) Idiot #2: the guy at the video store next to the place I got the leaf blower who insisted on running through the whole spiel about how I should join the $30.00/annum membership club at the store to get discounts. Me, as soon as he started: “I’m not interested, thanks.” Him: “You’ll save lots of money every year.” Me: “I don’t shop here except once in a blue moon when I have to come down to this mall to get something else.” Him: “Membership is only $30.00! You’ll get back the cost of membership in no time.” Me: “No, I won’t. I mostly order DVDs from Amazon.” Him: “Along with your membership, you’ll get our exciting newsletter.” Me: “CAN I PLEASE PAY FOR MY MERCHANDISE?” Him: “I haven’t finished telling you about the membership policy!” Me: walks away.

3) Idiot #3. Leafblower bought from dying chain store. Guy who rings me up: “Your leafblower comes with a two-year warranty, but for a mere…” Me: “I don’t buy extra warranty coverage, thanks.” Him: “I haven’t finished yet.” Me: “I’m not interested, thanks.” Him: “It’s only $30.00 [about 25% of the purchase price] for an additional two years of coverage, with free replacement of your blower in the last two years of coverage if anything goes wrong.” Me: Silent stare. Him: “So shall I add the protection plan?” Me: “No.” Him: “It’s a great deal.” Me: considers walking away again, but that would really be a wasted afternoon.

4) Idiots #4 and 5: Narrow lane in parking lot outside. Extremely elderly woman in giant boat car blocking my car from getting out. Extremely elderly woman #2 who is evidently a friend of #1 blocking the opposite direction. They are chatting with each other through the open windows of their cars. Cars are backed up behind them in both directions: difficult for anyone to back up, and five cars back they can’t tell what the hell the problem is anyway. Me: waits patiently. Considers posting a very reasonable blog entry addressed to the two old women recommending courses of action that would help preserve civil public discourse. Me: tries to ethnographically imagine their frame of reference and sympathetically see things they way they see it. Me: I’m fucking lying, I honked my horn. Old lady #1 briefly glances in my general direction, keeps talking. Other cars join in the honkage. I finally get out and yell at them. Lady #1: “FUCK OFF!” I get back in my car and try to remember whether my insurance will cover me if I back up at 45 miles an hour into them. Decide it will not. Wait. Four carefully counted minutes pass and they finally end their grand summit meeting.

The thing with the stores especially annoys me, though. Our local bad supermarket is like that, too: infected by fourth-rate B-school middle management jive. Their big thing is to greet customers by name when they see your name on a debit card or credit card receipt, which I’m sure some consultant says makes people feel at home. Me, it just creeps me out vaguely. It’s the supermarket, it isn’t Cheers. They also ask everyone if they can help you out to your car, which is insincerely pro forma–the first time I saw someone actually ask for help (a guy in a wheelchair) the cashier put on a big martyr act with eye-rolling, and so on. All of this is evidently judged to be a better way to work on customer retention than stocking the goods that many customers want. Middle-management nostrums are not going to save this market and others from getting squeezed out by Wal-Mart (or Trader Joe’s) on the discount end and Wholefoods or similar chains on the quality end, any more than they’re going to get me down to the mall more often or get me to drop money on a pointless warranty extension. I’m sure all this looks like it’s helping on the bottom line in the extremely short and constrained short-term, but equally sure that in the long-term it’s just pavement on the road to losing market share. Big companies are no different than most bureaucracies: the guys at the top can only see a big picture, the guys at the bottom have no say, and so the guys in the middle get to run around doing a fine imitation of Dilbert’s boss.

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10 Responses to Dearth of a Salesman

  1. ogilvie says:

    Hmm. Around here (western Massachusetts), salespeople are quite blasé about memberships, extended warranties, and the like. They go through the motions until you ask them to stop, but they don’t really care. Maybe they don’t get a commission for it.

    Your last paragraph brings up one of my own pet peeves, though: strangers who address me by my first name, either because they have my credit card, or because they are calling to try to get me to donate to their charity. It’s sometimes creepy, and it’s always rude. Frankly, having just spent a year in France, I occasionally think it would be a good idea if we revived the distinction between formal and informal second person pronouns in English. I used to think that being on a first-name basis was our sociolinguistic equivalent, but clearly that’s no longer the case.

    My, I am sounding curmudgeonly!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I ABSOLUTELY HATE IT when people get my name off my credit card and then address me as “Ms. Goetz.” They never, ever say it properly and hearing my name pronounced wrong by someone who does not know me and has no reason to be nice to me other than the fact that someone higher up told them to makes me really, really angry.

    Thanks for letting me join the rant.

  3. DarkoV says:

    “Their big thing is to greet customers by name when they see your name on a debit card or credit card receipt, which I’m sure some consultant says makes people feel at home”

    One of the benefits of having a non-American sounding name and especially one that can be mis-pronounced in a seemingly infinite amount of ways is dealing with just such social stupidities. Most times, the retailer will look at the charge card, shake their head, and return it to me with nary a mumble. The brave and the stupid (individuals of the same cloth, basically) will start with good intentions and then shatter into bits on the letter strewn rocks beneath the cliff of my name. A simple “What did you just say?” directed at them will then finish this exchange and no further words need be exchanged.
    If it’s been a particularly straining day, I may sigh just before the greeting is attempted. That’s usually enough of a signal to desist with the corporate niceties.

  4. DougLathrop says:

    I actually hate it when ANYONE besides family, friends, coworkers, or others with whom I have some sort of standing relationship address me by my first name. I’m not sure where it comes from–first names are the default in California–but when a supermarket checker or the receptionist in a doctor’s office calls me anything but “Mr. Lathrop,” I feel as if they’re treating me like a child. That’s on top of the fact that, at large chain stores at least, this creepy faux-familiarity is nothing more than marketing department crap.

    Of course, no one seems capable of pronouncing Lathrop correctly on the first try (it’s LAY-thrup, not LA-thrup or La-THROPP), so I’m screwed either way.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t even want to be Mr. Burke to them, really.

  6. joeo says:

    Some stores like best buy have, or had, a requirement that salesmen needed to sell extended service agreements on a preset percentage of electronic devices. The salesman were better off not selling the electronic device if they didn’t sell the extended service agreement along with it.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I think that’s what’s driving it, but that’s also exactly what I think is a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy: it turns the experience of shopping at a store into an ordeal when the salesman is under heavy compulsion to push something that most savvy customers know to avoid. So you lose the savvy customer–which Best Buy otherwise has specifically set out to court. There was an interesting piece a while back in the NY Times on this: Best Buy and some other retailers costed it out and found they lost money on the people who only showed up when there was a huge sale advertised, and made money on the people who were there for a specific piece of electronic merchandise that they’d researched and decided on. I suspect that the customer you want most in that sense is often the customer who does not want to be hassled or pushed around by a hard sell strategy.

  8. In re the two women blocking traffic: If I can, I try to address such situtations when I’m angry enough to be forceful, but not so angry that I’ll encourage the other person to be stubborn.

  9. cashflagg says:

    Most (if not all) big-box retailers have instituted policies like this, wherein employees are required by corporate law to push essentially worthless discount programs, warranties, service agreements, gift card sales, etc. to everyone who makes a purchase, regardless of the customer’s (lack of) interest. Not only that, but many stores also crack the whip on these tactics by requiring middle managers to constantly observe/critique cashiers, sending in “secret shoppers” to make and file reports on each employee’s level of obedience, and firing workers who don’t feel like uttering the required spiel. (And no, commissions are not one of the motivating factors. That would a) make too much sense and b) possibly allow some people to earn a living wage.) The whole thing is just really stupid and irritates the hell out of everyone involved, but since the idiotic executives who came up with these ideas don’t have to deal with customers walking out on them, telling them to shut up, and/or otherwise reacting with justified anger, it’s likely that this trend will continue until every single chain store consumer switches to on-line purchasing.

  10. gbruno says:

    The biggest idiot around was teh guy buying a leafblower. Now he can spread noise pollution – sounds like a person screaming, what kind of idiot enjoys that?
    He can also spread air pllution – blowers pollute like 20 cars, a filthy smell.
    And for what? So he can exert a technological dominance over a bunch of leaves? When he is merely moving them around.
    I would join with all the people you encountered in calling you a disgrace

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