“Have you been in before?” the salesperson in the boutique inquired. No, I answered, I was killing time before an appointment. Not a serious shopper, was my intended message. No need to spend any marketing energies on me

“You should try something on,” she pressed. “These over here,” she ruffled through a sheaf of dresses, “are from Paris. We go to the Paris shows twice a year.” Guiltily I marched over; the dresses were luscious crepey numbers that tumbled heavily under my hand. They were not my style, nor from the looks of them, my size. I glanced at the price tag and went blind.

“Mmmm…pretty,” I murmured dutifully.

“Try one on!” she demanded.

“I’m not really in the market for a dress.” Then, always one for ill-advised candor: “Also they’re out of my price range.”

“They’re from Paris,” she repeated. She paused, looking me up and down. “Where do you shop?”

Okay: annoyed now. “Well, I got this at Goodwill,” proudly pointing to my shirt. (Thanks in equal parts to the sustainability movement and Macklemore, Goodwill is now a name to be dropped.) “And my skirt came from Ross Dress for Less.” (This was a perverse lie: I occasionally shop at Ross, but the skirt had a provenance way too far back to remember, possibly the ’80s. As far as I was concerned, I got it from my closet.) 

She gasped, audibly, and clutched her heart. “Ross!” she exhaled, eyes rolling heavenward—then unleashed a screed on the tragedy of sweatshop labor, the durability of quality, and the importance of supporting small local retailers. I stood there nodding like a mute—who could disagree with any of it?—wondering desperately how long it would be until some other fool jingled through the shop door to rescue me.

“Jeepers, look at the time,” I blurted. “I’m late for my dinner reservation.”

“Ahhh…dinner reservation,” she said, her eyebrows shooting into her hairline. “You’re dining out! How often do you dine out? Did you see these silk scarves? They just came in…”

As I fled I wondered: Does liberal guilt actually work as a sales strategy?

I call it the Browbeater: If you’re not interested in our product, your values must be off. Perhaps it is effective, but for annoyance value it’s right up there with the Conclusion Jumper, in which the salesperson decides in advance exactly who you are. This one takes a page from Amazon’s personalized ads for [insert recently searched item here], clogging up the margins of whatever websites you visit…forever. 

My favorite Conclusion Jumper is the grocery store wine guy whose job it is to help you choose the right bottle for dinner. “What’s on the menu?” he’ll ask—but even as you’re answering him you notice that, instead of looking at you, he’s getting an eyeful of the contents of your shopping cart. He’s sizing me up!

“Just gives a good sense of…your…you know…who you are,” backpedaled my wine guy when I called him on it. Your class, I believe is the word he was groping for. Whether you’re an Eggo-with-marshmallow-fluff kinda gal, which leads to the jugs and the boxes, or an organic-arugula-and-fig-jam epicurean, in which case he will bring out a couple of vintages of Beringer Private Reserve.

Sizing up the mark is hardly a newsmaking sales technique, but salespeople familiar with norms across the country say that these sorts of softer, more manipulative strategies are more West Coast than the directly aggressive, hard-sell sales vibe of the East. Of course anyone who’s lived in this corner of the West knows that the granddaddy of our soft-sell methods is embodied in the salesperson we’ll call the Cheerful Friend.

In a green Starbucks apron the Cheerful Friend will respond to your coffee order with a jaunty cock of the head and a verbal wink: “Well that’s a lot of adjectives, but I’m pretty darned sure we can make that happen for ya!” At Safeway he’ll begin every transaction with, “Were you able to find everything you were looking for?” and end with that feel-good quantification of his value: “Ms. Robinson, you saved 39 cents today!” At Abercrombie and Fitch she’s the 17-year-old skeleton folding $128 ripped jeans at the entrance, screaming “Welcome to Abercrombie!” over the thundering bass line. At many, many restaurants—oh, so many restaurants—he is the waiter who decides you need to know his first name.

You can identify the Cheerful Friend by the degree to which you want to punch him in the face.

This obsequious creature has colonized the country, but make no mistake: He is a product of the Pacific Northwest. He is the scion of corporate successes like Nordstrom and REI, which built their extraordinary reputations on customer service so aggressively accommodating that their returns
departments would famously give you cash back for anything. Snow tires, urban legend has it, at Nordstrom. Shredded hiking boots at REI. When REI’s lenient returns policy finally firmed up a little earlier this summer, it so rocked the local psyche that The Seattle Times bannered the news across its front page.

Now if we could just get those chirping Starbucksters to go easy on their caffeine intake till we’ve had some of our own.

 

Published: September 2013