The work experience: Moving on to sales and beyond

Published November 9, 2016   Posted in How to Think

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.

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34 responses to “The work experience: Moving on to sales and beyond”

  1. Interesting Steve. I too once held a sales type job but shortly after college. I worked as a distributor manager for a pharma company. I was tasked with giving or withholding incentives for them to not game our inventory. I hated the job as all I ever did in reality is deny distributors large amounts of money. It did do wonders to change my skill set though. Before that role I was the shy person who didn’t like to talk to people on the phone. After being forced to call people and get berated for costing them money you get over that fear quickly. We didn’t have the option to make the customers day by throwing ina battery, but I think regardless I will remain away from sales for the rest of my career.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks FTF – oh, I can certainly see that job ridding yourself of being uncomfortable on the phone! Doesn’t sound like you were in a good position…having to deliver bad news. If only you could just thrown in a battery and make it all better! 🙂

  2. Wow, that’s pretty neat you were in a true sales role at age 16 and earning commissions! Probably a great introductory time to teach you the ins and outs of sales without feeling foolish or anything. I take it this was this another stop along the way, helping to teach you what you didn’t want to do?

    • Steve says:

      Yup! Though I liked the sales job better than the Safeway gig, retail just doesn’t do it for me. It was fun, thankfully. Learned a lot more about dealing with people than I did the first 16 or so years of my life, no doubt! 🙂

  3. I sold makeup for a prestige brand (their phrase) for commission at the mall. I made bigger paychecks working part time that I did when I first started teaching. If I had any forethought, I would have written down my story Selling to people is a wild ride.

    • Steve says:

      Ha! I definitely agree, selling to people can give you the best stories that you will probably remember forever. Funny that dealing with people has a way of giving us stories to remember! 🙂

  4. Great story! Man, sales is tough. It truly does take a special person to be successful at sales. As you mentioned, people can be difficult. The ones that have no respect for others and think they should be the center of attention at all times are the worst. It sounds like a great experience for you. Learning to deal with difficult people is a great learning experience.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Go F Yourself! You’re right, sales is very, very unique. I’m not a natural salesperson so it definitely got me out of my comfort zone. Ultimately I think you’re right, it was a great learning experience.

  5. Apathy Ends says:

    Worked a similar job at Sears that was commission based in the tool department. Half the time it was SUPER easy – some people know what they want-walk in and buy it. Some people want to know everything or be told what to buy – good learning experience. Picked up some new skills and realized sales was not for me 🙂

    Our big commission getter was fridge water filters – they were double digit percent commission.

    • YIKES – don’t let Mr. 1500 read that about the fridge water filters! He (and I) were just complaining about our spouses and how much they like using the fridge where we have to change those filters!

      I did a sales job for a year in college – jewelry (in a fancy store in the mall). I didn’t mind it but I was a terrible salesperson. I was never comfortable pulling out the diamonds and Rolex’s – but I could change a mean watch battery 😉 I also watched my peers spend half of what they made each day shopping or getting food from the food court.

      • Steve says:

        I once kept the same water filter in my refrigerator for something like 3 years with daily use. Water didn’t taste any difference so I was just too lazy to change it out. 🙂

        Oh man, I could NEVER sell jewelry. First, I know absolutely nothing about jewelry, but I also don’t think I’m very, umm, approachable when it comes to that stuff. People would take one look at me and go, “What in the hell is that guy doing here?” 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Yup, I found that to be true with cameras too. Some sales were just a luck of the draw – if you happened to be available to help, you got the easy sale. Other times it was a royal PITA, and even then, it sometimes didn’t happen! 🙂

  6. Mr. PIE says:

    Perhaps the guy looking for the battery wanted an EVEREADY one. Like you should be at his beck and call at the time. …>:)

    Or Steve the Energizer Bunny….hopping immediately from one customer to the next at whatever drum was beaten……

    LOL. Sounds like you got some real good schooling early on in your career!!

  7. Mr. SSC says:

    I was thinking, I never did do a sales job – oh wait, I was a server for about 1 year, and part time bartended for 6 months – king of sales! Hahahaha Upselling wines, or any alcohol is tricky because some people get offended, some want to show they can afford it, and others just want better wine or liquor. Even appetizers and dessert was tricky, but by dessert time I knew whether or not the people would go for it. I loved the holidays, but summertime was rough.

    I ultimately went back to the kitchen because while I made less money, it was predictable and I didn’t have to deal with the public. Just servers and the crazy head chef.

    Haha, Apathy Ends comment just reminded me I need fridge water filters, and I even found them on a lightning deal at only $8/filter. Woohoo! Thanks for the reminder!

    • Steve says:

      I bet the bartending was a very, very interesting experience. My sister in law was a bartender in NYC for a long time, and the stories she has…

  8. Sounds like a cool job Steve.

    In Canon’s defense, the best products don’t need incentives to sell 😉

  9. Mr. PIE says:

    Perhaps the guy looking for the battery wanted an EVEREADY one. Like you should be at his beck and call at the time. …>:)

    Or Steve the Energizer Bunny….hopping immediately from one customer to the next at whatever drum was beaten……

    LOL. Sounds like you got some real good schooling early on in your career….

  10. That’s a neat second job to have! I always fear I missed something quintessentially American by not having a summer job as a teen. Sigh.

    Out of curiosity, were you using your paychecks for fun money or were you saving for college? I’m always curious what people use their summer jobs to fund. 🙂

  11. Andrew says:

    Wow great story! Very impressive holding your own at a sales job before college!

    I never had a sales job in my life mostly because it wasn’t exactly one of my strengths. I would have no idea how to connect with customers and earn commissions. However, the older I get, the more I realize how life is all about sales. Maybe it’s not earning a commission, but you have to sell yourself to get a job interview or even getting a date with a girl.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Andrew. It’s very true, we are ultimately selling ourselves all the time. Really, all the time. And sometimes, commissions come in very different forms, too. It may not be monetary, but the rewards of selling ourselves well often are realized!

  12. Steve, you are an amazingly talented writer. I was there in the store with you, mentally. Funny, I had an option to go to a photography store in Juneau, Alaska when I graduated college. I thought about it, but went the Corporate route. It’s turned out very well for me, but I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I’d taken that fork in the road. This history made your story that much more relevant to me.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Fritz! Very much appreciate your kind words – I’m humbled! Yeah, I bet you made the right decision from a financial perspective. But, it’s nice to know that one of my readers is as interested in photography as I am! 🙂

  13. I’ve never had a job that was evenly remotely sales. I would have to deal with customer service quite often and I learned decently quickly how to remedy a situation without people getting too mad (usually). It’s neat that now that is one of your big hobbies (photography not sales).
    Fervent Finance recently posted…Living On One Income

    • Steve says:

      Ah yes, customer service. I’m sure that job had its fair bit of…babysitting and connecting with people who were generally not all that happy. I bet that you use those same skills today without even knowing it.

  14. Beth says:

    You are absolutely right that it takes a special kind of person to be in sales. It is not for me – I am not special in that way LOL. Having a sales job at 16 like that probably was one of the best things you could have done. I imagine it taught you a lot in general that benefited you in high school, college and early working years.
    I actually have sales goals in my current position. I hate it! Even though I make my sales goals (which are low) it still causes me anxiety.
    My boss is amazing at sales. Partially because it is sort of a niche industry and clients mostly come from word of mouth. She is good at what she does so she really doesn’t have to push for a sale – they come to her.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Beth! Yup, there are many out there who are natural sales people. Certainly not me, but still a fun job. It was an easy way to learn the process. 🙂

  15. Matt Spillar says:

    “It takes a special kind of person to be a salesman”

    This is so true. I worked a Sales job at a sporting goods store and it was pretty rough. The retail/customer service side of things means you get to deal with many different personalities. Sometimes people are really friendly and interesting, other times they’re super rude and act like you’re supposed to be their servant. Another reason I didn’t really like sales is because it feels like your goal is to pressure someone to buy something. I’m naturally frugal, so trying to push products on people never felt good. The times where you actually get to help people find the right item that they’re looking for and help explain the product to them are fulfilling, but unfortunately those times were few and far between.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Matt – yeah, I remember times where I truly did lead the customer to the best product for them, and they were really appreciative of the fact that I didn’t try to oversell them. I do admit that I felt a greater sense of accomplishment with those customers than customers who spent more, but didn’t really know what they were doing.

  16. Mrs. BITA says:

    This made for interesting reading because sales is something I could never do. I couldn’t sell a thirsty man a glass of water. I’m sure that this is because of a great many deficiencies in my personality, but one that stands out is that I CANNOT, for love or money, smile at someone unless I am actually feeling happy about something, or they have just cracked a joke. My second year out of school during my annual performance review I was told that some of my colleagues considered me unapproachable and intimidating. My manager advised me to smile more. Two days later he came over and told me to please, in the name of all that was holy, just stop. Apparently I looked more like a predatory wolf than anything else. Sigh.

    • Steve says:

      I’ve always been able to fake a smile, but to this day I’m not sure whether or not that’s actually a good thing. I suppose that when you’re in sales, you do need to be able to smile…provided you’re not a predatory wolf, that is! 😉

  17. Another great read Steve!
    It’s so true what you said in the last few paragraphs of the post. You really do see it all when you work in retail. The audacity of some people is almost unbelievable. It would have been cool to work in photography and learn about that. I worked in retail selling cell phones, internet, and cable before and after College. It was great experience when reflecting back on it. Thanks for sharing on your work experience.

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