Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Mysteries of Marketing

As the retail season stumbles to a close for the year, in this a global recession, an old thought rose up in my mind: If I had to sell anything for a living, I'd likely starve.

Advertising, marketing, salesmanship all require a persuasive art form that I simply do not possess. I know people who are in sales and are very good at it, but I simply don't have the knack. Long ago, thankfully, I worked for an advertiser and was surrounded constantly by salespeople. They were a fun-loving, gregarious group of people, and wacky hijinx often ensued. One of their favorite games was to have chair races in the parking lot, where they would duct tape themselves to office chairs and race down the slightly inclined parking lot with one of the other members of the sales team acting as the driver by pushing the taped associate. That ended on the day that one of the sales people decided to let go of his assigned chair.

A trip to the ER featuring sutures resulted, and it became company policy to ban chair races. That was easily the weirdest memo to ever circulate through an office, by the way. "In light of recent occurrences involving Brad's face..."

But that's not why I'm a terrible salesperson. I'm naturally introverted, but learned to overcome that. I appear to be very outgoing but am actually just a shy person who learned to compensate.

That and there was my first job at a drugstore which I am certain made me associate sales with wanting to vanish through a handy gap in the floorboards. The drugstore in question had a training technique, if a customer asked for a specific product and we didn't recognize the name, we were to ask what its use was as products were grouped by use. So the cold medicines were on aisle three, foot care items aisle two, etc. Doesn't sound like it would be fraught with peril but it managed to mortify me the very first time I tried it out.

A nice looking man of about 35 entered and spied me standing behind the counter. I was sixteen and, as you can see from my profile photograph, I have exceptionally dark hair combined with incredibly fair skin. This combination does not seem to broadcast "sturdy, unflappable, extremely practical" and it also means that when I blush, people seven counties away likely see a glow on the horizon. The man looked at me and hesitated, I smiled and he tentatively approached.

"Excuse me, miss, where are the prophylatics?" he asked politely.

Now, I'm reasonably well-read, and I was at sixteen also. I have a fairly extensive vocabulary and it is pretty difficult to stump me in terms of language use. It happens to this day, of course, but at sixteen I knew exactly what prophylatic meant; preventative. How peculiar, I thought, about fifty percent of all products in a drugstore are used to prevent something.

"What's it used for?" I asked with great cheer, and a confident smile. Then I wondered why the man was looking at me as if I was entirely deranged.

"You know, Trojans?" he offered.

I did, of course, who doesn't? Concealed in horses and all that. I stared at him as I pictured a Trojan Warrior in my head, clearly not comprehending his meaning. The man was staring at me as if I was extremely simple and then began the mortifying litany.

"Condoms! Rubbers! Ways to not get pregnant!!"

There ended my brief foray into being the super salesgirl. In fact, when I think of why I associate having to sell anything with dire levels of embarrassment, it has to do with that drugstore, and frequently with those blasted prophylatics. There was also the time I was busily affixing price stickers to a gigantic vat of condoms when before me appeared a Catholic Nun, who I'm still convinced the universe must have imported specifically to make me want to perish on the spot. I lived in Princeton, NJ at the time, a place not exactly stuffed with convents. I literally had the things piled around my feet, and onto my knees, so when I stood up to take the nun to the aisle she needed, I accidentally showered the feet of a bride of Christ with rubbers.

That killed off any sales, or marketing abilities within me. Yet, I've always been fascinated by the ability to sell because it is a skill I so decidedly do not possess.

Marketing in a recession is particularly tricky. For several years I didn't see many commercials because we have a digital video recorder, and at our old house, I couldn't see a TV from the kitchen. The only time I watched TV was when I was seated on the couch, fast forwarding capability at my fingertips. Now thanks to our new house, I can switch on the TV, access a recorded program, and watch while I cook. This meant exposure to commercials for the first time in years.

Trying to get people to buy anything in a recession is a challenge, and it seems that most companies settled for a vibe that can only be described as awkwardly uncomfortable. Target has a series of ads that are best termed the Passive-Aggressive Olympics with things like a young woman receiving a gift of jewelry from her (rather frightening looking) boyfriend. A terribly gaudy thing, which she accepts with a less than gracious, "I didn't know we were there yet." and her cringing boyfriend assures her it didn't cost much; cue Target logo. This is the advertising equivalent of my encounter with that poor man in the drugstore, who probably wished my father had donned a rubber, rather than produce me lo those many years before. That's just one example of the weird ads out there this year, but there were plenty.

I guess the thinking runs that people aren't comfortable spending money, therefore the commercials should reflect that feeling of discomfort. It's a strange way to sell. Smiling was also out this year, it seems, leading to things like a Levis ad with a creepy voice-over and nary a grin from the beautiful young people doing things like swapping their jeans.

So I sent my TV many a questioning glance in between pulses of the food processor, and occasionally even stopped to stare, whisk aloft, jaw drooping slightly. I had my head down, picking stems off of blueberries when I heard what I think was the 43rd bastardized rendition of Carol of the Bells, a favorite among advertisers. I used to love that darned thing, but it has several mutant forms that are rather unpleasant. When I heard the familiar tune, my spine stiffened as I de-stemmed, then:

One Foreign Yeti, Hikes with a Teddy

That was the line that got me to look up. The entire commercial was nonsense lyrics with accompanying images. I put down the blueberries, walked into the family room and rewound specifically to see the commercial.

Later I would see this:

Yipes! There's the clown!

You know, I may not know how to sell anything, I know that about myself. I'm also probably featured in a couple of tales told by other people as "That idiot clerk" but I do know something else: If you want to make me buy something, you're better off making me laugh, rather than reminding of the various uncomfortable situations in my life.

And indeed, I ended up asking my mother, "Hey, do you want a GPS, by any chance?"

She did, and way to sell, Garmin.


DUTA said...

Alane, if you talk the way you write, then you can sell anything to anybody , any time. any place - even 'ice to Eskimos".

Cabo said...

Ha! That little gem of your foray into sales. Oh, that hurts in the gut. Priceless. :)

The Bug said...

Laughing out loud here again. I am also NOT a salesperson. I'm more of a "you wouldn't happen to perhaps, maybe sometime, in the future, you know - buy this?" I always made my mom sell all my school stuff - she was GOOD at it (and worked in a convenience store, which helped).

Vera said...

Oh thankyou so much for introducing me to those adverts! I followed them through to Youtube, and from thence to 'Celtic Women' singing the Carol. Thankyou for a happy hour of viewing, and for posting an enjoyable blog. I know what you mean about being someone who has to be quite 'bright' with people to cover up the shyness underneath because I am exactly the same.

Land of shimp said...

I'm fairly certain I do speak (mostly) as I write, DUTA, but I truly can't sell anything! It's that I'm often a little blunt, and I'm just not good at highlighting selling points if they aren't 100% true.

So my sales pitch would likely sound like this, "Of course, you can get basically the exact same thing at a better price over on..." I'm just horrible at talking people into parting with money for personal gain. Weirdly, I can generally get people to donate to charity very easily...but even then it isn't that I have some great selling technique. It's generally that I look so completely cornered and desperate, people (desperately wishing to be away from my pale, anxious expression) give me money to make me take my leave!

Oh Cabo, every story I remember about that darned drugstore had so much mortification, or sheer horror involved in it. Don't get me wrong, plenty of people came in, and quietly picked up their whatsit or whosit and went on their way, so it's only the "EEK!" stories that stand out because they were so horrifying.

We one had a man come in seconds before closing. A rather sloppy man, who had clearly been drinking, who tried to talk me into selling him one condom because, "That's all I need!!", said rather frantically. The three pack, costing all of a dollar, was simply outrageously priced, according to him. We wouldn't sell him one condom, and so he left in a huff without buying any, heaven help his poor paramour.

I'm assuming there's a 26-year-old somewhere that doesn't quite know that is the story of the gleam in his/her father's eye.

Somewhere at a Rea and Derrick in NJ, my lost innocence lies limply on the floor ;-)

I'm so glad I made you laugh, Bug, but I'm just thrilled to know that you also are an inept salesperson!! Yay! No offense meant, whatsoever, but it's always baffled other people -- I seem assertive, but turn into a mealy-mouthed wonder-simp when trying to sell anything. I am so glad to have you for company in that!

Vera, I'm so glad you enjoyed the commercials, and isn't that just one of the best things about youtube? You start out with one link, and then follow a thread, often to something thoroughly enchanting.

The Carol of the Bells, done well, it's a beautiful, beautiful thing. That's part of the reason I tend to cringe when it is used by advertisers...but Garmin had fun with it (and the choral voices used are actually quite good)...and I'm so pleased it led you to one of the better renditions!

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I truly appreciate them :-)

Jo said...

Alane, I am sure you could charm the Levis off anyone...! :-) that sounds like a very strange ad, by the way.

This made me chuckle, but at the same time, it made me sort of sad. We wonder why the Christmas spirit seems to be disappearing. It's because beautiful Christmas songs like this have been hijacked by commercials, and Christmas has become commercialized.

And by the way, the man who was looking for prophylactics should have known better than to approach a 16 year-old clerk. He knew he was making you feel uncomfortable, make no mistake. Shame on him...!

Land of shimp said...

I know what you mean, Jo, and in particular those Target ads were the pits. Just the general feeling of how much was spent being the point when giving, or receiving a gift. The commercialization is bad enough, but that weird emphasis on thinking about cost while receiving a gift was...well, it was freaking tacky as could be.

Here's a link to the Levis commercial. There are a couple of smiles in it, after all and there's an interesting story with the audio: Part of it is from an original recording of Walt Whitman's voice reading one of his poems ...the other part is a Smithsonian recording from the 1950s featuring someone I've seen named thrice, with a different name each time, but the most likely is Will Greer.

And do you know when it comes to that man in the drugstore, it wasn't until I told Rob (my husband) that story after we met, and he mentioned how deeply creepy it was for a grown man to try and be all suave and sophisticated while asking a very clearly young woman -- who very obviously had no personal knowledge of condoms --for prophylatics that I actually got that he knew damn well what he was doing.

As Rob put it, any adult man worth his salt would have taken one look at a sixteen-year-old clerk and either looked through the entire store without asking, or walked up to me and asked to speak to the pharmacist.

So yeah...thank you for confirming that :-) I was so embarrassed by that situation that I tend to put the fault entirely on myself, when really? That was a pretty freaking creepy thing to do. There's no way he thought I was an actual adult.

Hilary said...

I so get the discomfort at the notion of trying to sell something. I'm the same way. Odd commercial and even odder customer in the pharmacy. I'm sure he could see he was dealing with a virtual child.

Thanks so much for your incredibly kind words on my recent blog post, Shimp. You have no idea how much that pleases me. Thank you and best of luck with your new camera. :)

Frances Tyrrell said...

These are delightful ads, not seen here, so thanks for the connection.

I'm with you, make me laugh, or even tear up (insurance companies or the LDS have some good ones for that). My favorite commercial (which really dates me) is the Coca Cola "I'd like to teach the world to sing".

And thank you for another well-told story with side-aching laughter!

Merry Christmas-time, and Happy New Year,

PhilipH said...

Dear Alane, what a descriptive writer you are! You love words and they seem to flow so easily and naturally from your fingertips as you write.

I bet you could sell fridges to Eskimos if you WROTE to them. You have such a talent when writing down your thoughts. Showing us your thoughts to be more precise.

When, in the early 1970s, Britain 'went decimal' - giving up our old duo-decimal system based on 12 pence to a shilling etc - and started counting our cash to base 10, I had a spell as a salesman. Selling the new-fangled electronic calculator at £200 a throw!

The chap who engaged me as a seller of these gadgets assured me that I was a natural salesman. That was the first I knew of it but I took his word for it.

I once sold almost 20 of these desktop calcs to a bookmaker on the south coast. In one hit I'd made a great deal of commission and felt on top of the world! I think I was in love with the machine itself and my enthusiasm for it (now we were decimalised!) probably did the selling!

So Alane, I think one CAN be a natural at selling if you believe in what you are selling. Trouble with many salespeople is that they do NOT really believe and thus fail.

Sincerely, Phil

Pauline said...

The high-jacked Christmas carol is precisely why those commercials were so catchy. I'm not much of a salesgirl either - the one job I was ever fired from was as a drugstore clerk! Makes good writing fodder though, doesn't it?

Land of shimp said...

Hello, Hilary! I'm glad that words pleased you, they were sincerely meant. I've not exactly become an inspired photographer since Christmas, but I'm trying. It probably does not bode well that I have a very difficult time convincing the little thing to actually take the picture.

So the scene runs like this:
*Me, spying something I think I'll try and take a picture of, aiming purple camera, lining up shot, pressing required button*
*Fat load of nothing*
*presses again being sure to apply even pressure*
*camera appears to be on vacation*
*finally begin to turn the darned thing to have a look at the button when "CLICK"*

I've got some fabulous shots of...blurs, thus far :-)

I'm glad you enjoyed the post, by the way, and thank you!

Hello, Frances! It's good to see you. I like commercials also, the good ones really show an understanding of people, and often a good sense of humor. They can be little exercises in creativity, and I do admire the talent that goes into them.

Fear not, I've also found myself tearing up at the odd commercial. There's one I only ever saw once, but it made me cry buckets. It was for a phone company, and it was about satellite video calling.

A young soldier, clearly on a base in a foreign land, comes into a room and is addressed by a gruff superior. "You ready, Corporal?" the young man nods, and the gruff superior suddenly smiles as he takes his leave.

The soldier nervously removes his hat, and shifts it about in his hands anxiously. The TV sized screen in front of him switches on, a pretty young woman says, "Hello honey! I miss you!"

Aw, very sweet, but that wasn't all.

"I'd like you to meet..." she says, and holds a small bundle up to her face," ...your son."

That was pretty much enough to make me blubber, but then the young soldier, tears in his eyes, and lip slightly quivering, reaches out and gently touches the baby's face on the screen.

So, after about five minutes I stopped bawling. I'm rather glad I only ever saw that one once.

Hello, hello Philip! I'm not in the least surprised that you had a stint as a successful salesman. I'm sure part of it is having a product you truly believe is good, and then you had the added bonus of it being a needed product.

Although I suspect that you could sell me something I didn't need! It's your lovely, rounded vowels.

I actually know a couple of people who do PR and who also write some ad copy. It seems a pretty difficult job, you have to be concise! As a stranger to brevity myself, I fear I'd really louse it up, but I do thank you for the compliment and appreciate it greatly :-)

Pauline, I think the Garmin ads work because by having such odd, random, and surreal images and words, they seem to be acknowledging, "Yes, we know we're ripping off a classic here, but at least we're doing so in an entertaining manner."

Plus, I really love the line about the Yeti and the Teddy.

Isn't that the truth about drugstore jobs? I've worked in a variety of retail jobs at different points in my life, and that was the strangest job. Something about the rather personal nature of the products being sold had people being very glitchy at points. Entertainingly so.

Thank you all for the comments. Happy New Year, all!

Hilary said...

Ahh Shimp. It sounds like you have a timer set somehow. In the manual, locate how to return the camera to its original settings and you should be good to go. Or.. you're on a manual setting and you're on a very slow shutter speed. If you're most comfortable on auto settings for now, find out how to set it up for that, and to have the flash set to auto also. There's time to learn how to adjust shutter speed, aperture and ISO if you're interested.. and no need to learn that if you're not.

Land of shimp said...

Thank you very much, Hilary. I likely should have mentioned that it appears to be just me. Both my husband and son seem to be able to get it to commit to taking a picture!

Actually, I finally discovered what it was: I wasn't pressing firmly enough. In practicing I've been chasing my cat around, so now the camera seems to like me a bit better (it's about half and half that I can get it to shoot when I want) but the cat likes me decidedly less :-)

Hilary said...

No doubt you'll resolve it with three things.. practice, practice and more... catnip. ;)

Suldog said...

My Dad was a salesman, and a great one, but I am not. I, like you, am a beacon-like blusher. Therefore, if I bullshit at all, it isn't successful. I'm given away immediately. As you might imagine, this would tend to make one not quite a shining salesman.

Frances Tyrrell said...

Help, just your description of the commercial for satellite video calling makes my eyes prickle! Must be a tribute to your prose...
Happy New Year,

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

HI there, l'm not sure how you came by my blog..but l am thankful you dropped by..I dont think we have met before, so HI!!

thanks for your very generous comments..I liked your words very much...and enjoyed visiting here also...I shall come back again to read back over previous posts , so l know where you are coming from...

happy new year!!

saz x aka FFF

Land of shimp said...

Hilary, thank you for making me laugh! The mere thought of my cat stoned on catnip is wildly amusing.

I will keep practicing, but know real talent when I see it. You have real talent. I am likely to eventually be able to take an in-focus picture of my left shoe. I'm currently in possession of an out of focus one. No clue how that happened, it's a shoe, after all. Not prone to movement unless it has a foot in it. At least you'd think. Perhaps it is a magical shoe. Or I've had too much coffee, again. The latter may be more likely, but the former is more intriguing.

Suldog, I am glad to know that I am not the only one who can blush in such a manner. They won't lose either of us in hunting season, although I suppose I'm more likely to be green in such circumstances. Thank you for the comment, I always enjoy your stories.

Frances, we must never watch commercials together, that is clear. Or if the fates ever align to allow for such a thing, we must have plenty of kleenexs at the ready :-) Ah well, it's good to be an emotionally accessible person, isn't it? Even if it places merry sport with the mascara!

Hello Triple F (points upward) we have crossed paths at Hilary's blog before. In fact, if I'm remembering correctly, that was the second time I commented on one of your posts. Although, in some weird "and then it got sucked into the ether" moment, it seems it never posted.

Anyway, I've been to your blog several times. The comment I'm remembering was in regards to the bike leaned against the lamppost, in the snow. I believe I said "That looks like where the Wicked Witch of the West enters Narnia."

It's easy to remember the comment, because the photograph was very memorable for me. It was truly lovely, and vaguely surreal.

Happy New Year, and thanks for stopping by.

Amy said...

Oh, Alane, another good post. I'm still catching up from our Christmas getaway, and, yes, it was my first as a "grammy!"

To be a good salesperson you have to believe in what you're selling. I know because I owned and operated a retail nursery for 23 years. I was never good at selling anything there except my favorite roses and the seaweed spray I used on them to prevent me from getting really, really sick. Fortunately we had a few employees who could sell quite well. So I understand what you're talking about. After selling our business, I got into eBay and Etsy for some time, with mixed results. Then last year I took the Artist Way course (online with mostly Brits who happened to be writers - you would have loved them!). It was during that 12 week period that I came to the decision that I no longer wanted to sell anything, anymore, no way, Jose! What a relief - now I can be more creative in my choices and there's no pressure.

Your story was hysterical and I quite agree with your husband about that weird man asking a 16 year old about "you know what."

ds said...

Ha ha ha ha! Thank you for laughing me into the new year. This is a priceless post, on several levels. Well done!!

Happy New Year! And thank you for finding me, so that I could find you (I definitely got the better end of that deal). Write on!

Margo said...

I think you underestimate your authenticity and it's value in this world that is full of the inauthentic trying to cram stuff down our throats as if we're all brain dead. The segment that isn't brain dead (they are allowed to have a poor sense of direction though) truly could use you. Those commercials are priceless. I don't think they ran here.:)

Land of shimp said...

Hello, Amy, I hope you've beaten that cold into submission. I'm so glad you had a good Christmas with the charming Mr. E.

I really enjoyed your most recent post, and it sparked several fun conversations here about the Nyquil of the times :-) Isn't that just the funnest thing about blogs? We never know what will end up adding some spice and interest into our lives.

ds, it was my pleasure, and thank you for returning the visit! I have a great love of words (I should, god knows I use scads of them) and last night i had a dream that involved "scouring the sky" thanks to you. Again, just one of the neater things about our world today. I really loved that turn of phrase.

Hello, Margo! Happy New Year to you. I believe I was just over on your blog, talking about a concerned looking fox (and boy did he have reason to look concerned!).

Thank you for the compliment, by the way. I suppose I'd be terribly gifted at selling people things that actually weren't horrible wrecks, but they'd be unlikely to believe me!

Thank you for stopping by!

Miss OverThinker said...

my first day back from blogvacation so I thought I'd catch up on my reading.. what a funny post.. you made me laugh so hard, my sides hurt.. I can't take that Alane, not on top of the back pain that I have :)

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Land of shimp said...

It's good to have you back, MOT, sorry for any incidental injuries! Welcome back and I'm so glad you had such a nice vacation.

Now heal, back injury, heal!

Hi Tom (I'm assuming that's your name, Anon), I did check out your writing. Don't sell yourself short, you write quite well. Looks like you're doing some freelance work? Well done, you :-)

Thank you very much for your kind words, and for making an exception and commenting.

I enjoyed checking out your work. Keep at it, you have exceptional writing clarity, which isn't something that is easily learned.

Thank you for the links, and I hope to see you again.

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