In part one of the Work Experience, I talked about my first job. I was 15 and wanted extra cash, and I was willing to do just about anything. And honestly, I HAD to do just about anything; 15 year olds don’t have marketable skills.
At least I didn’t. I spent the majority of my time in pick-up basketball games in the neighborhood. The rest of the time I was inside watching movies or Saved By The Bell with the aforementioned cheese balls.
Safeway killed me, figuratively. I hated the working conditions and needed to find a way out. I applied to a bookstore and was offered a position making minimum wage ($5.15) – which would have been a decrease in pay from what I was making at Safeway when I left ($5.80/hour). Screw that.
It was nice to have options, but I wanted something different…maybe something that I actually enjoyed doing. Imagine that.
I enjoyed photography, but I can’t start photographing weddings at 16. Hey, what about a photo store? Ah, there was a Ritz Camera about 15 minutes away from my house. I applied and was offered a job starting at $6.00/hour.
Hot-diggity-damn! I get to work inside rather than outside. I make more money. The place closes an hour before our shift ended at Safeway, so I also got home earlier. Things were looking up. Now, all I had to do was figure out how to be a salesman and talk to people.
Learning to be a salesman
Holy damn, it takes a special kind of person to be a salesman. I mean a GOOD salesman. Granted, for some 16 year old high school student, I held my own. I quickly learned what products to push and what to ignore; the techniques that worked and those that didn’t.
We loved commissions. We got a commission based on what the manufacturer provided. Nikon and Olympus, for example, offered good commissions. Canon, on the other hand, offered nothing. Guess which cameras I never tried to sell? That’s right. Screw you, Canon.
The only way I would sell a Canon is if the customer specifically wanted a Canon. Luckily, we’d also get 2% commission from everything that we sold – to include film processing, cameras, bags and virtually anything else in the store. Basically, if we rang it up using our employee number, we got credit for the sale. If somebody bought a Canon off of me, I’d still get the 2% sales commission.
This was my first real experience with my paycheck being substantially different from week to week. Some weeks, I’d only make a few bucks over my base $6.00/hour. Others, I’d literally be swimmin’ in it.
And we loved Christmas. Our commissions would routinely double and sometimes triple during the holiday season. People would walk in with the intention of dropping cash. Our job was only as tough as directing them to the camera that best met their needs. They were already convinced to spend money.
In contrast, summer sucked. We actually had to sell. Us Ritz Camera employees couldn’t exactly establish relationships with our customers. Much of the time, a customer walked in just to browse. Other times, they were on the fence about spending money at all. And for most of our customers, we never saw them again. We had one chance to immediately connect with them and that was it.
Sometimes it worked.
And a certain segment of society (a nationality) – who will remain nameless for the purposes of this article – ALWAYS wanted something “thrown in”. Batteries were popular contenders for this little freebee. The instant that a member of this nationality walked in, we already knew what we were going up against. They were willing to spend money. We appreciated that. But, they also needed to have freebees.
It was like a compulsion. It must happen! And they weren’t afraid to ask.
“Remember the battery”
Like many electronic stores, Ritz Camera’s biggest profit margins are in the batteries and accessories. And of course, many of the cameras we sold didn’t include batteries. They wanted our highest margin’ed stuff thrown in for free. Sometimes I’d do it for free. Sometimes.
I remember one time I honestly forgot to sell a customer (yes, of THIS nationality) a battery for a camera that they just bought from me. They paid their bill and began walking away. Then, I remembered:
“Oh sir! I’m sorry, but I forgot the battery“.
Apparently, this struck a nerve. Immediately, this guy goes off that I forgot to sell (give) him a battery. He calls the manager over and accuses me of engaging in a “Bait and Switch”. My manager, to his credit, promptly set this guy straight. Obviously he had no idea what a “Bait and Switch” is, but that didn’t matter. The customer returned the camera, got his money back and walked out.
After this fiasco, my manager walked over to me and said “Next time remember the battery“.
Dealing with (and selling to) people
This job taught me how to deal directly with people. Safeway offered only a cursory glance at interacting with customers. “Where’s the salt?” “Aisle 5, right hand side”. That was about it.
But at Ritz, we were interacting with everyone…random people from off the street. We had no idea how shitty or awesome their day was. It didn’t matter – we had a job to do.
I had some guy say “Fuck you” to me as I was helping another customer. Apparently, he demanded attention the instant he walked in the door. I neglected to rudely leave the customer I was helping. This shmuck got upset, said “Fuck you”, and left.
People are emotional and irrational. Some have a superiority complex. Others lack confidence. Some will spend $500 on a camera but want a $9.99 battery thrown in. Others want immediate attention. Some want to be sold and others couldn’t make a decision to save their life.
In such a small segment of society who spent money on cameras and photo gear, I got to see a representative from virtually every type of person. The happy and sad. The clueless and smart. The carefree and demanding. And we, as people, develop a set of instantly-accessible tools that help us deal with each and every one of these people.
By the end of the first 6 months at Ritz, I had seen it all. Everything there after was just a repeat of what I had already witnessed. Now, I wasn’t developing skills as much as I was refining them.
I liked the job. I liked the people I worked with and generally enjoyed the business of selling photo equipment. Learning the photo machine was another cool experience, though the technology we used is now ancient history. We had a little screen on the machine that displayed a picture of the negative, and we had to make quick decisions about developing that negative without any adjustments or to under/over expose by as many as three “stops”.
Without going into gory detail about photography and exposures, it was fun. I got to develop my own photographs, too – and print them to my exact specifications. Cool stuff.
And this was my last job before hitting college.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.