It turns out they’re printing a new Casper The Friendly Ghost comic book, or at least a kind-of new one with a bunch of reprints of vintage stories. And that got me into a nice friendly chat with the cashier where he shared the jokey old story about how do we know that Casper isn’t the ghost of Richie Rich? And I will admit I warned by saying that I was a Harvey Comics fan from ages ago. If need be, I could give, I warned, “shockingly many” arguments from the classical Harvey Comics canon that would show that theory was, if I remember my words correctly, “wholly untenable”. And this led him to recalling that when he flew as a kid on American Airlines they would give out Harvey Comics as reading material to kids, something that he had loved back in the day and completely forgot about for decades.
So with that one of the many meaningless impersonal transactions of the day was turned into a moment of real connection, between strangers, over a common appreciated thing and over childhood memories loved and rediscovered. I’m going to be way too embarrassed to ever be anywhere near the store again, ever.
It was an ordinary setup for a week of comic strips. The department store hadn’t been sent some of the sunscreen meant for a planed summer display. Marla, the department store manager, shrugged, resigned to the impossibility of getting the supplies they needed to meet corporate’s plan. Brice, the new assistant manager, was sure that was impossible. At his old store corporate would never short-change inventory like that. Marla told Brice if he wanted he could go beat his head against the wall of corporate’s inventory system.
And that’s a moment that stood out.
Retail, by Norm Feuti.
Retail is another example of the continuity-humor sort of comic. It’s set in one of many outlets of a New England department store. Something inspires the week’s worth of action. But the characters change some, in the slow way we change. Sometimes characters leave altogether, for new towns or new jobs or new careers. Sometimes characters realize the job they took for a summer is becoming their lifelong workplace.
So here’s the thing that stood out. Most comic strips that do a story you know the rough outline of what will happen. That’s not necessarily a strike against it. If the characters are clearly defined then there are limits to what they can do. Anything too far outside is surprising or illogical. And while a situation can blow up unexpectedly, that doesn’t happen often. Stories have logical limits.
But here — what might happen? And many options made sense. Marla could be right, that corporate didn’t care, and after long enough of fighting against this, neither should Brice. Brice could be right, that there was some dumb screwup that could’ve been fixed by anyone trying. There could be some truth to both sides.
That stands out. Comic strips often have this sort of interpersonal drama. But there’s usually a more clear definition of who the heroes are and who the villains are. Retail stands out for avoiding that. The characters are the protagonists of their own lives, and they’re depicted well enough that you can typically see their side of it. It stands out to see this sort of drama in which everybody involved is a reasonable adult.
This is not to say there’s not pettiness or stupidity. But it’s a pettiness and stupidity that feels observed and authentic. Stuart, the District Manager, has the sort of suspicious, devious mind that inspires suspicious and devious behavior from underlings. Stock manager Cooper discovered that one of his employees had for months thought all there was to inventorying deliveries was counting the number of boxes received in the morning and had no idea the stuff inside the boxes needed counting too. Everyone’s job is that blend of being called on to do more than their time and resources allow, for people who are ambiguous and contrary yet exacting in their demands.
The comic can be absurd. Some pieces feel like fossils of an early idea of the comic as a broad satire. See most of the strips with Lunker, the enormous and nearly cloud-cuckoolander stockroom worker. But that’s kept well-balanced, enough loopiness to break up and to highlight the mundane stuff. The result is a comic strip that feels like the warm memories of having worked in a mall, sometime in the past. When what you have left of it are a couple of anecdotes about weird customers and boring evening shifts and the time everybody gathered around to watch the impossible happening. Which, in my case — it was a Walden Books — was someone actually for once buying one of the nearly 48 billion copies of The Polar Express that corporate thought we needed. It was August. It was ridiculous, in the quiet and simple ways. The ways of retail life.
In this piece from Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley shares solid, practical advice he got from reading a book. It’s still solid advice nearly a century on. For the record I’m the kind of customer who tries to hide behind the endcaps and will flee to another store if an employee asks if I need any help finding anything, which slows me down those times when I do need help finding something. However, if I’m really determined to buy something, any old thing will do and I can find something most anyplace to buy. iPod case? $100 Grand candy bar? Soccer ball pressure gauge? Differently-colored underwear? They’re all somethings. They’ll do.
HOW TO SELL GOODS
The Retail Merchants’ Association ought to buy up all the copies of Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Westley Ivey (Macmillan), and not let a single one get into the hands of a customer, for once the buying public reads what is written there the game is up. It tells all about how to sell goods to people, how to appeal to their weaknesses, how to exert subtle influences which will win them over in spite of themselves. Houdini might as well issue a pamphlet giving in detail his methods of escape as for the merchants of this country to let this book remain in circulation.
The art of salesmanship is founded, according to Mr. Ivey, on, first, a thorough knowledge of the goods which are to be sold, and second, a knowledge of the customer. By knowing the customer you know what line of argument will most appeal to him. There are several lines in popular use. First is the appeal to the instinct of self-preservation—i.e., social self-preservation. The customer is made to feel that in order to preserve her social standing she must buy the article in question. “She must be made to feel what a disparaged social self would mean to her mental comfort.”
It is reassuring to know that it is a recognized ruse on the part of the salesman to intimate that unless you buy a particular article you will have to totter through life branded as the arch-piker. I have always taken this attitude of the clerks perfectly seriously. In fact, I have worried quite a bit about it.
In the store where I am allowed to buy my clothes it is quite the thing among the salesmen to see which one of them can degrade me most. They intimate that, while they have no legal means of refusing to sell their goods to me, it really would be much more in keeping with things if I were to take the few pennies that I have at my disposal and run around the corner to some little haberdashery for my shirts and ties. Every time I come out from that store I feel like Ethel Barrymore in Déclassée. Much worse, in fact, for I haven’t any good looks to fall back upon.
But now that I know the clerks are simply acting all that scorn in an attempt to appeal to my instinct for the preservation of my social self, I can face them without flinching. When that pompous old boy with the sandy mustache who has always looked upon me as a member of the degenerate Juke family tries to tell me that if I don’t take the five-dollar cravat he won’t be responsible for the way in which decent people will receive me when I go out on the street, I will reach across the counter and playfully pull his own necktie out from his waistcoat and scream, “I know you, you old rascal! You got that stuff from page 68 of Elements of Retail Salesmanship (Macmillan).”
Other traits which a salesperson may appeal to in the customer are: Vanity, parental pride, greed, imitation, curiosity and selfishness. One really gets in touch with a lot of nice people in this work and can bring out the very best that is in them.
Customers are divided into groups indicative of temperament. There is first the Impulsive or Nervous Customer. She is easily recognized because she walks into the store in “a quick, sometimes jerky manner. Her eyes are keen-looking; her expression is intense, oftentimes appearing strained.” She must be approached promptly, according to the book, and what she desires must be quickly ascertained. Since these are the rules for selling to people who enter the store in this manner, it might be well, no matter how lethargic you may be by nature, to assume the appearance of the Impulsive or Nervous Customer as soon as you enter the store, adopting a quick, even jerky manner and making your eyes as keen-looking as possible, with an intense expression, oftentimes appearing strained. Then the clerk will size you up as type No. 1 and will approach you promptly. After she has quickly filled your order you may drop the impulsive pose and assume your natural, slow manner again, whereupon the clerk will doubtless be highly amused at having been so cleverly fooled into giving quick service.
The opposite type is known as the Deliberate Customer. She walks slowly and in a dignified manner. Her facial expression is calm and poised. “Gestures are uncommon, but if existing tend to be slow and inconspicuous.” She can wait.
Then there is the Vacillating or Indecisive Customer, the Confident or Decisive Customer (this one should be treated with subtle flattery and agreement with all her views), The Talkative or Friendly Customer, and the Silent or Indifferent one. All these have their little weaknesses, and the perfect salesperson will learn to know these and play to them.
There seems to be only one thing left for the customer to do in order to meet this concerted attack upon his personality. That is, to hire some expert like Mr. Ivey to study the different types of sales men and women and formulate methods of meeting their offensive. Thus, if I am of the type designated as the Vacillating or Indecisive Customer, I ought to know what to do when confronted by a salesman of the Aristocratic, Scornful type, so that I may not be bulldozed into buying something I do not want.
If I could only find such a book of instructions I would go tomorrow and order a black cotton engineer’s shirt from that sandy-mustached salesman and bawl him out if he raised his eyebrows. But not having the book, I shall go in and, without a murmur, buy a $3 silk shirt for $18 and slink out feeling that if I had been any kind of sport at all I would also have bought that cork helmet in the showcase.
The banner flying at the strip mall proclaimed that Accent Customer Relationship Partners was “Now Hiring!” This sounds exciting, since looking at the name and the logo and the strip mall I have not the faintest idea what they do. They could be marketeers. They could be the people who tell you how your call is very important to the corporation you’ve called which is why the corporation isn’t answering it. They could be a series of foreign-language instruction videos. What I realize is that the words can be rearranged in any order as long as you leave only the last one pluralized:
Customer Relationship Partner Accents
Partner Accent Relationship Customers
Customer Partner Accent Relationships
Relationship Accent Partner Customers
Customer Partner Accent Relationships
Partner Relationship Customer Accents
My love interrupted my glee at this by pointing out that “Accent Customer: Relationship Partners” is obviously no name for a shadowy organization that probably does something you really wish people weren’t paid to do. My love is right, of course, but now I know that Accent Customer: Relationship Partners is just the title to use for my next series of business slashfic.
But it’s so nice to eat in a restaurant now and then. It’s warmer than a fast food place, the furniture is cozier, there’s something more generous in it being trusted you will pay when you’re done than putting your money up front. It’s so much less likely there’ll be the guy rambling about Iraq and the Federal Reserve to the baffled university student who can’t find a graceful way out of this and doesn’t want to just bolt for the door.
But she saw me.
I just tapped my glass. It wasn’t on purpose, I was just fiddling around because the hand wasn’t needed for the book and it has to do something and it’s either fiddle with the cutlery or touch the glass. But the glass was almost empty, just soda-stained ice and the straw left, and now … yes, she’s come. What if she thinks I’m beckoning her over to demand a refill?
She dips her head and smiles and I just know she’s thinking I think she’s there to jump to my whims. Diet Coke isn’t much of a whim, but it’s the contextually appropriate one. I don’t want to be one of those customers. I want to just fade into the background and someday, eventually, pay my check. I can’t save the situation. “Thank you,” I say, before she opens her mouth. One.
“Would you like a refill?”
“Thank you,” I say, fumbling the first word so it comes out in three syllables. Two. She grins and takes the glass and I’m panic-stricken that she doesn’t remember it’s diet I was drinking. “Er, that’s Diet Coke,” I say as she recedes, marking myself as someone who beckons the waiter over and barks out refinements of my demands. Why oh why did restaurants stop putting slices of lemon in diet soda? It saves so much agony in making sure the waiters remember who the freaks are who care about the difference. “Thank you,” I pitch after that, whether she hears it or not. Three.
I shouldn’t have said anything. She surely remembers. There’s just me at the table, there’s no complicated ordering going on. I wouldn’t dream of it. I didn’t change soda mid-meal, unless now she thinks I did because I specified and now what must she think of me? At this point she’s got to have figured my only saving grace being that I didn’t demand things be sent back to the kitchen, and is working up such a sarcastic blog post about me that’ll go up on the Internet somewhere I won’t even see. Good heavens. Why don’t I flee? No, that would be worse, clearly worse.
I see her again. She’s got the soda. Maybe it’s diet. Maybe not. “Thank you,” I say, as she gets near the table, and she nods. Four. Does she mean the nod? Is she just putting up with me? Does she suspect how this is all a horrible mistake? Is she aware how much less tense I’d be if she just hadn’t noticed me? How much I wouldn’t have felt under-served? How I could’ve paid and been on my way to have something embarrassing happen at the video store instead? I can’t explain any of it, that’d just take up her time and it’s not like she can un-pour the soda.
“Thank you,” I say again, as she walks off to patrons who she hasn’t got every reason to hate. Five. I said “thank you” five times for a soda I had no reason to care about getting until it was too fraught with emotion to not get. I have to do something with it. I take a sip, and then a longer one. If she looked back at my table then she knows the soda was used for its intended purpose. The crisis is passed. I can wait a decent time and then hope she brings the check.
“Oh, you are thirsty,” she says, taking me by surprise. “Would you like another?” Something has stolen ten minutes and two-thirds of the soda, and my hands are resting on it again.
“No, thank you,” I say, and realize I forgot to say the “no” part out loud.
So I realized I could use a little more income, at least for a couple of months. My first instinct naturally was to set a little money trap on the lawn, but our pet rabbit said I looked like an idiot holding a string tied to a stick that propped open a little box and that anyway I didn’t even know how to bait a money trap. I thought seat cushions would do it for sure, but all I did get were the peanut sprinkles from the tops of doughnuts. This lead me to the alternative route of consulting.
Consulting, I learned from my father, is pretty sweet work. The core of it is to find a company that wants to do a thing, walk around their offices while wearing a suit and nodding grimly, and then handing out a thick set of binders and tell them to go ahead with whatever they wanted to do, and then submit an invoice. It’s a toss-up which is the harder part, the nodding grimly or the suit-wearing, because I have these weird mutant feet that curve way too far to fit in any shoes. If I fit my heels into the shoe heels, my toes rip through the front of the shoes, and vice-versa; I’ve lost many heels to a stubborn shoe. The last comfortable pair of dress shoes I had featured a little sidecar shoe for my heels, causing people to stare at my feet and then sidle away. This was fine when I was someplace as an employee and not responsible for my presence or appearance, but it won’t do when I’m representing myself. I set out wearing the shoe boxes as camouflage.