Mar 2, 2015

Under the counter: a sideways look at the world of independent retailing

Where have all the sales men and women gone? I admit I’m not the most observant of men, but even I have noticed that the folk who spend their working lives trying to persuade you to buy things you don’t really want at prices you can’t afford have been pretty thin on the ground lately.

“It’s the internet,” my assistant Norman said when I mentioned the subject during the afternoon doughnut break. At least it stopped him talking about his hiatus hernia for almost five minutes.

Disintermediation logistics
According to Norman, email and social media has snuck up and pretty well clobbered salespeople as we know them. “Take my pal Frobisher, who travels in door furniture,” Norman said. “He hasn’t been out on the road for months. Nowadays he just sits in the office, calls himself a product specialist and sends emails to people in places like Nantwich who’ve complained their patio doors won’t shut. They’re calling it disintermediation logistics. It’s no life for a chap who’s not even 40.”

I suppose that if you can get stuff at half the price online, why should you have to put up with some graduate of the Attila the Hun school of salesmanship bullying you so mercilessly that you’ll sign almost any order form just to get the bloke out of the shop.

Like the salesman, whose young son, hearing that his father had been in the army, asked: “Whose side were you on, dad?”

So it would seem that salespeople have finally become the pterodactyls of the retail trade, joining Player’s Weights cigarettes and Matchless motorcycles as things known only to those with a long memory and short attention span.

Sadly, it’s the old school salesmen who seem to be getting the chop - like my pal Joe, who has been selling sports and leisure footwear since the days when he was called a commercial traveller, drove a company Ford Anglia, wore a snap brim trilby and carried his samples in a fake crocodile skin suitcase.

Joe desperately tried to become a 21st century salesman by driving a Ford Focus estate, staying in Travelodge hotels and totting up sales on a laptop, but when it was discovered he still raised his trilby to women and held open doors for them his fate was sealed.

Not all his generation were such gentlemen of the road, particularly a cove I worked with when I was briefly a trainee salesman. Cyril was what he called an “area sales representative” for a firm importing batteries and light bulbs from Eastern Europe, labelling them as expensive brands and selling them at a vast profit.

“The batteries last about an hour, if you’re lucky,” Cyril said. “The bulbs can often explode when you turn them on. Make sure you’ve left with the cash before that happens.”   

When business was bad, as it usually was, Cyril would do a bit of taxi driving and work evenings in his brother’s chippie for what he called “ciggy money”. He was seldom without a fag.

When I once tentatively asked if we could open the window of the smoke-filled office, Cyril gave the benefit of his medical experience. “Most normal people smoke,” he said. “It would be good if a neurotic like you had a smoke. It would calm your nerves.

“Princess Margaret smoked. I suppose you think you’re better than her. The old king wasn’t averse to a fag, neither. We took him on the old Vanguard battleship to South Africa. It went 17 feet on a gallon of fuel. Bet you didn’t know that.”

It was not long before I came to know the incantation with which Cyril ritually ended all successful sales: “Well, that’s another one the Queen knows nothing about,” as we scurried off before the light bulbs began to explode.

It was a pretty grubby occupation and I was glad when my dad decided to take me into the shop as customer communications manager (I answered the phone) and my days on the road were finally over.

Haunted look
Knowing first-hand what an awful job it can be, I have always tried to be sympathetic when some rep comes into the shop with the haunted look of a man who is nowhere near his sales quota for the month.

Not that it always works. When a small order for super-grip goalkeeper’s gloves, offered purely out of compassion, did absolutely nothing to cheer up a young salesman - one of the last reps we’ve seen - who looked as though he was about to burst into tears, I didn’t feel too bad about cancelling it the next day.
The last I heard of Cyril he was selling reconstituted organic high energy breakfast cereal from Lithuania. Presumably it’s another of his ventures the Queen knows nothing about, although I do occasionally wonder whether I should find the time to at least drop her a line.


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