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In the Days of Door-to-Door Sales

`Never approach the door selling something,'' my father advised, smiling almost mischievously while gesturing toward his case of samples. ``Don't pressure, just let `em know you're offering a token of appreciation. After all, who turns down a gift?''

Dad gave away green-handled vegetable scrub brushes to complete strangers. Other times he'd offer yellow plastic soap holders or small black pocket combs. My father, a door-to-door salesman, subscribed to the philosophy that a free gift will bring a sale.

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Today, as I hear commentators and politicians decry the lack of traditional values, I am reminded of my father's work. A salesman in the mid-1960s, his presence was part of the fabric of our middle-class Trenton, N.J., neighborhood. More important, his example offered many lessons to me, a wide-eyed third grader, fascinated by the mysterious world of door-to-door sales.

I saw my father's business as a six-day-a-week traveling store. Each morning, except Sundays, Dad was up and dressed in his dark-blue suit and comfortable black dress shoes by 7 a.m.

He spent the first part of the morning at his large oak desk reviewing prospect lists and new product flyers. At 9:30 sharp, snapping open his sturdy tan display case, he arranged the catalogs and samples he needed for the day.

I longed to be old enough to join him; to be part of his adventures into unknown neighborhoods. I'd run to the front door each night as I heard his heavy feet in the hallway. ``How'd things go today?'' I would ask eagerly, waiting for that day's customer stories.

Finally, on my eighth birthday my constant pleas were heeded. I was permitted to join him on Saturday-morning deliveries, but only if I helped prepare the orders the night before.

``If you want to make it in this business,'' he explained seriously, ``you must start at the beginning. You have to know your products.''

I rushed out to the driveway the instant he returned early Friday afternoon: delivery day. Unpacking the merchandise from large shipping boxes onto five family-room card tables, we arranged the thick bristled brushes in one area and the green-and-white plastic bottles and cans in another.

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Dad handed over my stack of orders to fill: the moment I had waited for all week. I imagined I was as important as the school crossing guard who I admired each day. I had real responsibility. I was the go-between between the salesman and the customer. My full attention was required. Dad's reputation rested on my shoulders.

As I put the cleaners and polishes into the bags, I wondered about each customer. What did Mrs. Hutchinson look like? What kinds of houses were on Movenwood Road? Why had Mrs. Dempsey ordered a rust-resistant wire toilet-bowl brush two weeks in a row? I pictured Dad later knocking confidently on her front door, handing over the white paper bag, and saying proudly, ``Not to worry, ma'am, your order has been filled.''

Form in hand, I'd read aloud each item as I walked from table to table. ``Two vanilla-scented shampoos, one oven cleaner, and a dry-mop replacement head.'' List complete, I'd select the appropriate-sized white paper bag.

Sometimes from nowhere, Dad would suddenly appear over my shoulder as I packed. ``Eh, not so fast. Remember to load the heaviest items first.''

Corrected, I passed on the filled bags for final inspection. ``Always double-check with your order form,'' he'd say, adding the can of appliance cleaner I had overlooked. ``Accuracy shows the customers they're worth the extra effort.''

With a quick snap from the gray stapler, my father attached the receipt to the sealed bag, bestowing his final approval.

The sounds of car doors slamming shut jolted me out of bed on Saturday morning. I knew Dad was in the driveway arranging two large boxes of bagged orders in ``Big Bluey,'' our 1966 Ford station wagon. I dashed around, getting dressed and gobbling a bowl of cereal. My father did not stand for tardiness.

Harried but excited, I slipped into my appointed spot in Big Bluey's front seat. With the engine's roar, our adventure had begun.

What I didn't realize on those mornings was that door-to-door sales people like my Dad were becoming obsolete before my eyes. Fewer and fewer people at home during the day meant a way of life was disappearing. His knock was frequently unanswered. I overheard him confide to my mother: ``This is the loneliest work I've ever known.''

But he kept walking.

Once, while we were riding home from deliveries, he explained how he competed against the newly established discount stores and malls. ``You have to tell your customer: `My product will out-clean, out-brush, and out-polish whatever you are using now.' That's my personal guarantee.''

Stopped at a red light, he readjusted his hands on the steering wheel. With humility and seriousness he continued, ``You offer your word. Simple as that. See that it stands.''

``The people are the best part of the business,'' he told me repeatedly. But in time, he admitted that the people and society had changed.

Shortly before I started fifth grade, our family moved to Florida where he accepted a non-commissioned sales position.

There are no salesmen like my father today. It's sad to know that even if there were, I probably wouldn't trust them were they to appear at my front door.

But my sadness is eased by memories of sitting beside Dad during our Saturday rides in Big Bluey. Watching him, I learned how respect is given and how it is earned. His actions demonstrated that hard work is the norm, not the exception.

In ways I'm sure he never realized, my father, the salesman, gave himself as an example of how I should live. That was the real gift he offered.

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