Caveat Emptor?

AT college I needed money, so I tried for a week to sell magazine subscriptions by supersalesmanship tactics. I rang doorbells and represented myself as bearing a message from the New York Central Railroad.

‘May I see you a moment?’ I asked.

The victim thought I might be bringing news of the untimely death of a relative, that I might be distributing passes to Yellowstone Park, that I might be offering to settle the claim of an ancestor.

This is what I said, once inside the office or the house: ‘The president of the New York Central Railroad desires me to call your attention to a series of articles now being published exclusively in our magazine. Here is his letter.’ (The letter was a photostat of the sort of letter a friendly reader often sends to an editor. The official complimented the editor on a recent article and expressed the hope that every citizen might read the series.) As the prospective victim gave his eyes to this precious message I reached into a small black bag strapped under my coat and brought out a two-foot strip of imitation leather which represented the backs of a set of books, a collection of short stories.

‘Now,’ I explained, ‘we desire to give the president of the New York Central Railroad our fullest coöperation. Therefore we intend to present you with a free subscription to our magazine for one year. All that we ask is that you sign this card. By signing you not only get the magazine free for a year, but by the payment of one dollar you will receive this beautiful set of books. They will be delivered by messenger to-morrow. You pay one dollar to me now. The balance of six dollars you can pay at your convenience on the first of each month when our collector calls. Here is the card, here is a pen, and that is the line where you sign your name. ’

If the card was signed and the dollar collected, I kept the dollar. It was my commission. I gave the card to my boss. I was then permitted to forget the transaction.

In those days five dollars was considered fair pay for a day’s work. Some of our men made as much as ten dollars. I could make about two dollars in an afternoon, but the work was so disagreeable and some prospects were so brutal that I gave up. My little experience was supersalesmanship in its lowest form.

My next experience came seven years later when I joined the forces of the National Cash Register Company. That was in 1915 and John H. Patterson was still alive and in command. Patterson was the first man to conceive and apply in a practical way the idea that the first principle of salesmanship is to measure the value of a device or a service not by weight or by cost of manufacture, but by its usefulness to the buyer. Time was when a salesman would talk about materials, gears, workmanship, finish. Patterson discarded all that and instructed his salesmen to sell cash registers as a tool of business without which every merchant faced imminent bankruptcy. Measured by the protection and information a cash register afforded, Patterson showed that his device was cheap at any price.

‘Is it worth ten cents a day?’ we would ask the merchant who hesitated. ‘Can you afford ten cents a day? Well, what is ten cents a day? It is $2.40 a month, $28.80 a year, $288 in ten years. But you know the machine is worth more than ten cents a day to you. More likely it is worth ten cents an hour. Think of the possibilities of petty thievery, forgotten charges, and mistakes, due to the lack of records. Yes, ten cents an hour is a low estimate of what this machine will save. Ten cents an hour is one dollar a day, and that’s $300 a year. But that’s only part of the story. Consider what this machine will do for you. The important fact is that it will put your accounting on a modern, up-to-date basis. At the end of each day you will know how much you have paid out, how much you have taken in, and you will know the total of the sales of each clerk. With such information you will be able to direct your business intelligently. Do you suppose this advantage is worth fifty cents a day? Yes? Well, fifty cents a day is $150 a year. Add this to the $300 which we obtained by a previous calculation and we have a net gain of $450 a year, and the price of the machine which will last a lifetime is only $150, and all I ask you to pay now is $50, with the balance in small monthly installments. ’

That is a sketchy summary of the sales method devised by Patterson and now used by every business house that prides itself on being modern. Every advertising man whose earning capacity exceeds $75 a week understands the principle. Don’t sell cigarettes, counsel the deans of the advertising schools. Sell distinction, freedom from sore throat, delight. Don’t sell antiseptics. Sell freedom from halitosis, dandruff, and disagreeable body odors. Don’t sell long-lived motors. Sell a quick get-away, envy of neighbors, moonlight rides, gay picnics. Don’t sell soap. Sell complexion, youth, beauty. Don’t, sell books. Sell love, intrigue, adventure, mystery.

Such is the essence of supersalesmanship. It stimulates sluggish brains. It supplies courage to timid souls. It gets action where otherwise there would be none.

No one can object to the supersalesmanship principle, provided it is not abused. If I am a manufacturer of bedroom scales I shall be stupid, indeed, if I discuss technical construction and neglect to play on a motive such as this: ‘Ladies, control your weight! Fat can be eliminated by a simple diet. With each scale we supply a table showing the correct weight for each height. Weigh yourself every morning.’ Common sense dictates the appeal.

But supersalesmanship often steps outside the bounds of honor and integrity. We are told that the old phrase, caveat emptor, is dead, that the buyer no longer needs to beware. It is true that the vast majority of business houses now conduct their affairs on the one-price system, and the buyer is fairly sure that on the day he purchases he will pay the same price as every other buyer. Department stores, for example, no longer haggle with individual customers, but all department stores haggle with the public. The season opens with all men’s overcoats at $35, $50, and $95. After January all prices are reduced 20 per cent. A month later prices are reduced another 10 per cent. ‘Final Clearance Sale’ brings prices down to $22 for any overcoat in the store (former prices $35 to $95). In this sale somebody gets an overcoat for $22 for which a November customer paid $95. The defense of this practice is that the customers at the beginning of the season have the advantage of a wide selection of new goods and new styles. But so many customers have learned to beware of first showings that the stores now do their biggest trade at sales.

The buyer to-day must also beware of the supersalesmen and the superadvertisements. Price trickery has gone. All are treated alike on price, but all are treated pretty rough. The patent-medicine advertisers with their concoctions, often loaded with whiskey and laudanum, did positive harm with their quackery and exaggeration. Is there any harm in setting forth excessive claims for face creams, perfumes, antiseptics, cigarettes, automobiles, men’s suits, automatic machinery, office systems?

I am a printer, doing a business large enough to attract, the attention of salesmen for every new time-saving device for office or shop, yet small enough to have no profitable use for half of what is offered. Unless I beware, the supersalesmen every six months will trade me out of my check protector, adding machine, filing cabinets, letter folders, time clocks, and even my office desks and safe. Their pencils move fast, and they can multiply faster than I can talk or think. I have learned to beware, lest my solvency be jeopardized.

Whether it is fair to suggest that Cleopatra’s beautiful complexion was due to washing her face with soap is a neat point in ethics. Whether it is proper to state that the reason for the success of certain women with men is the use of perfume of a peculiar scent is even neater. Whether it is right to affirm that a dull man can become a brilliant dinner guest by quoting odd bits from a book of miscellany is puzzling.

I have often contemplated what an adventure the special-delivery stamp would afford to a supersalesman. Imagine for a moment that the post office sold the special-delivery business to a private enterprise. What an opportunity it would offer! The price would be raised at once to twenty-five cents. The messengers would be scrubbed and brushed and fitted out with neat blue uniforms and rakish caps. The appeal in the journals for ladies and gentlemen would be to pride, vanity, conspicuous waste. Personal messages by personal messengers. In the business journals the appeal would be speed, attention value, economy, adequately supported by testimonials from users. Supersalesmen calling at offices for orders for sheets of special-delivery stamps would demonstrate that letters bearing ordinary two-cent stamps have no more chance of being read than a last week’s newspaper. They would show imposing lists of customers. The glue on the stamps would be delicately scented with perfume from the Orient, and the design and color of the stamps would be changed frequently to make excessive inventories obsolete. The 1929 designs would be announced June 1, 1928, and would be on sale July 1, 1928. Stamps in special shapes, designs, and colors would be offered for Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. ‘Will a special messenger deliver a letter from you on Mother’s Day?’ would be the challenge right up to midnight of Mother’s Day. The possibilities are infinite. One wonders that the Government itself does not use such methods to lift the war debt instead of resorting to old-fashioned taxes.

The line between plain salesmanship and supersalesmanship is so exceedingly fine that one is never quite sure what should be condemned and what should be praised. Was it a sense of supersalesmanship or good judgment that caused two youthful publishers to take a dozen nickel pamphlets, for which there had been a poor sale, and print the contents in a handsome book? The book, at five dollars, had a sale of over 200,000 copies. Shall we honor the advertising man who took a slowmoving breakfast food, selling at ten cents a package, raised the price to fifteen cents, devised an unusual method of presentation, and developed a market for several million packages a year? The food was healthful, but was the public charged too much for the information?

Caveat emptor is not quite dead. As long as women crave youth and beauty, despite advancing years, there will be clever advertising men who will take delight in exploiting them. As long as men are willing to believe that culture can be acquired by short cuts, there will be smooth, smiling book agents who will take their orders for just as many yards of books as they seem to require. As long as sales of any product sink below the level set by the board of directors, the sales manager will inject steam into his men and attempt to convert them into ‘go-getters. ’

Let me conclude with just one more thought. Business in the United States is developing into a competition between entire industries. It’s steel against wood. Concrete against brick. Cigarettes against cigars. Rayon against cotton. Leather against rubber. Books against magazines. Phonographs against radio. Meat against fruit. Bran against agar-agar. Candy against flowers. Varnish against lacquer. Dogs against children. Apartments against houses. Insurance against bonds. Cremation against real estate.

The battles are being waged through coöperative advertising, through sleek press agents, through beautiful and convincing brochures. Are you planning to build a new house? Free plans are offered by the makers of brick houses. Buy your bricks where you will, but do buy bricks. Are you thinking of having a few friends in for tea? The tea people will send you a pretty book of suggestions. Eat what you wish, but drink tea. It’s all nice and dignified.

The consumer is the supreme court. Must he beware? Must a mouse beware of hungry cats?