How I Became a Salesman

Walkie talkies, uniforms, and special lingo–all features one would expect to find as an agent for the Secret Service. Instead, Caitlin Boersma recalls these quirks as she mulls over her summer working at the mall.

Generally, I have standards for what I’ll do – even for money. I employ one crucial question when looking for work: “Will this job make me want to kill myself?” If my answer is “probably not,” then I’ve found a proper working environment.

Of course, I didn’t follow this criterion when job hunting this summer. I had my reasons. For one, temporary jobs are incredibly hard to find in my hometown. I applied to fifteen places one summer and received only one call for an interview. I was accustomed to working wherever I was hired.

My other thought was that summer is short. Could it hurt to work for three months at a place I loathed? I’d done it before and it hadn’t harmed anyone. I could do it again.

With these thoughts in mind, I headed to the nearest mall. I never thought I’d work in a mall. I hate malls even when I’m shopping. Malls mean claustrophobia, irritating cell phone salesman, and, worst of all, people. In retrospect, I think I must be some sort of masochist.

After making the rounds I found three places with “We’re Hiring” signs. There was an off-brand sandwich shop, a nurse’s uniform store where all the employees were dressed as (guess what?) nurses, and Bath & Body Works.

At least I made the good decision to only apply to Bath & Body Works. I nailed a pre-scheduled group interview an hour after I applied for the job, and soon had myself a keen summer job.

At first, I was looking forward to working at B&BW because I had never worked in retail before. My previous jobs skewed towards food service and libraries. I saw it as a challenge to persuade customers to buy stuff they didn’t want; I wanted to see if I could be a salesman.

It took me all of fifteen minutes to realize that I was not a salesman. After two days of watching videos and studying products, I was put on the floor. I was ready to entice customers with items that would leave them feeling special. Unfortunately, I was hired for the June Sale, and the only thing customers wanted to know was how much stuff they could buy for $5. I wanted to tell them about all the different product lines! I wanted to teach them what monoi oil could do for their skin! They weren’t interested.

I soon realized that working retail was a dog-eat-dog environment. And I wasn’t even on commission.

Customers are funny animals. Apparently they want to buy things, but they just don’t know it yet. My job as a sales “associate” was to show them what they wanted – nay – what they needed to buy.

My job as the welcomer in Zone 1, or the “Conversion Zone,” was to turn lookers into buyers. This proved challenging because when customers enter a store, their guard is up. They‘re prepared for nagging peons like me who smile politely and say hello. They’re not fooled by that. So, I learned where to stand so that I could easily block their way and inform them of deals before they got any further. At first, I offered them shopping bags when they walked in, but I was soon told my “bag language” was wrong. After that, I started to give them bags.

Our required dress was a conservative outfit of black and white, an apron, and an earpiece. I liked the radio at first. Any sort of walkie-talkie device gives the impression of being on the inside, and I happen to like secrets. The earpiece turned out to be a real bitch.

The managers worked among the sales associates, and so while they were selling or stocking, they could observe their employee’s behavior. One day I was making my sales pitch about the Signature line to an elderly woman. She was looking for a gift and wasn’t sure which scent to choose. She began telling me about the gift’s recipient so I could help her pick the right product.

A manager saw that I had been listening to this woman for more than thirty seconds and whispered into his microphone “Break away, Caitlin. Break way.” Because of this interruption, I missed her last comment and defaulted to a winning smile, a nod and a “yeah.” I sort of pointed to something for her to try and walked away.

I thought my training was to “pamper” the customer. I was supposed to meet them, determine their “needs” and suggest the appropriate products. But I’m a quick learner. It was plain to see that salesmanship is more a game than a service, and I was determined to win.

Immediately after this passive-aggressive reprimand (he always referred to me as “sweetheart”), I decided to exaggerate my motions. I “touched” every customer in my area in under a minute. I became so annoyed I began entertaining myself by speed walking around my zone spouting “Hiyoufindingeverythingokaygreatlemmeknowifyouhaveanyquestions!!!”

I received this comment over my earpiece: “Way to touch every customer Caitlin! You’re doing a great job, Sweetheart.” I wanted to kick my manager in the shins, but I had learned how to play the game.

I received a few lessons working this summer: Customer Service has nothing to do with the customer; only percentages matter. Smiling all the time and talking about your hair is the best way to make coworkers into friends. People will buy items they don’t need as long as you say it’s half-off.

My hope is that I’ll never need to use this information again. However, if I am in need of a whatever-I-can-find-job again, I know I can survive and even succeed. During my last two weeks, my managers could not stop complimenting me on my product demos and my conversion zone behavior.

I may be a sellout, but at least I’m a winner.

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.