Pushy and Possessive: Fear and loathing at the RV show

I have never worked in sales, and I know nothing about RVs.

I do know what it’s like to work long hours on my feet.  I worked at a grocery store for a few years.  I used to say my job was running around and lifting heavy things, but my body is not used to that anymore.  I get seven hours of sleep, regularly, now; I don’t remember which shoes are good for standing.

I also spent a lot of time interacting with people at the grocery store.  We were “known for our customer service”.  So my plan is to not really “sell” any RVs, so much as I will “customer service” people an RV.  That seems workable.  Also, the only reason I’m here is because I didn’t have any freelance work for the weekend, so if I fail to sell anything, I’m not going to cry about it.  I’m here with my boyfriend, who knows ever so slightly more about RVs than I do, having started working this particular sales job a month ago.  I am here to spend a long weekend with him, and to pretend I can sell RVs. I can do anything for four days.

Only crazy people use jobs as a vacation.  This won’t be the first (or the last) time I will deem myself crazy by my own criteria.

It is late summer in Northern Maryland.  The days are still long, but the weather is changeable.  The heat and humidity of summer do not fade slowly into autumn, but rather butt heads with the cooler nights and the breezes, forcing days of heavy rain and undulating, unpredictable skies.  I have learned to watch the weather patterns and to make predictions about many things tangential to weather, like grocery sales, and traffic, and the coming winter.  I know nothing about this area as it relates to RVs, however.  There is good camping to the south and the east, but in my brain, Maryland is close enough to DC to be either too rich for mobile campers, or too poor.

Day one begins with a meeting.  In fact, all of the days begin with meetings.  We began days at the grocery store with meetings, too.  I would try to make them fun, because arriving to work at 4am is not fun, but whenever people interact with workers at this grocery store, they describe us as “fun”, so at the 7:50am meetings, I would try to be fun.  Sometimes I would forget to be fun because there were still six pallets of frozen to work, three people had called out, and they had left the back room a mess the night before.  On those days, fun turned into bitingly sarcastic and I would make jokes about lighting people’s families on fire, which was maybe not fun.  I don’t get the sense that the sales managers for the RV show are trying to have fun, but they don’t have to because they are telling us about the money they will be handing out.  It doesn’t really matter how much standing you have to do, cash prizes are fun.  We did not have cash prizes at the grocery store.

Get people’s contact information; get money.  Get an offer; get money.  Get two sales; get money.  I do not expect to make any money when I sit down, but by the end of the meeting, I am ready to sell and ready to get my cash.

The weekend is frenetic, and yet, still manages to be boring much of the time.  Everyone’s moods are as changeable as the weather, which literally goes from dense heat, to rain, to cool and lovely over the four days we are there.  I ask as many questions of other salespeople as the potential buyers do of me.  For the most part, everyone is nice.  They point me in a direction; they give me tips; they talk for a long time about the best way to approach people.  Usually, they tell me to be some version of pushy.  They are pushy that I should be pushy.

“Why are they here if they aren’t looking to buy?” one salesman asks me.  He suggests I badger people to sit down at the tent and to buy an RV.  He seems to believe that shaming customers about going to an RV show without the intention of buying will change their mind about buying.  This is his job.  Maybe he knows something I do not.

Many of the salesmen are pushy in many ways.  Not just with customers and not just in telling me how to sell things.  They are pushy with each other, pushy in normal conversation.  They live in a sort of overdrive, exceptionally excited about the potential sales, exceptionally focused with their customers, and exceptionally bored or frustrated when they don’t have a customer to follow.

When Allen doesn’t have a customer to attach to, he will find another salesperson to bully into conversation.  Allen is a talker in mid-life.  He stands too close and laughs at his own jokes, always just slightly inappropriate for the crowd.  I wonder if he is making similarly misogynistic jokes to the couples looking at RVs and whether there is any chance they take it better than I do.  Allen talks fast and doesn’t notice when you aren’t participating in the conversation.  He laughs to fill the void where your laughter should be, and continues on.  By day two, I have learned to steer clear, to throw another coworker into Allen’s line of fire.  I would rather wander the aisles of parked trailers, slowly plodding and being rejected by busy families who are “just looking” than get sucked into a one-sided conversation with Allen.  My inability to strikethrough his speeches frustrates me to the point of rudeness.  I am more reliant on my red pen than I had realized.

I have never been so tired.  I barely make it through dinner, threatening to pass out at the table, urging my boyfriend to leave quickly because, while I have agreed to drive the half-mile back to the hotel, the rate at which I am verging on sleep is rushing to beat out the rate at which he is getting drunk.  Soon, my sobriety will not be enough to designate me driver.  That night I dream of sales and stress, of the grocery store, and more stress.  When I awake, every part of me is sore.  The mattress is too new and my knees hurt, I think, from the minute dome of the mattress and my need to sleep on my stomach.  The pillows are too thick.  My shoulders hurt.

Yesterday’s activities have made me hyper aware of my muscles.  I am unused to standing, walking on cement.  My body craves rest and a deep tissue massage.  I question my vacation decisions.  Until I get my money.  I have gotten contact information, and that means money.  A sales manager calls my name at morning meeting and announces to the crowd my cash earnings, “Six leads and five emails. Twenty-two dollars!”  The salespeople behind me applaud, as they do when each dollar amount is given.  They are applauding the money, not the person.  I have made one sale, which earns me no large cash bonus, but the promise of a commission, which I admit I do not understand.  Twenty-two dollars is officially more than I would have made this weekend, otherwise.

Day two is bright and sunny.  We are all expectant.  Having tasted our own good luck on opening day, we have high hopes of eager customers, but they do not come.  The bright sun becomes oppressive and we are oppressed.  Salesmen become sluggish, aimlessly wandering empty aisles, chugging 12oz plastic bottles of water only to sweat it out minutes later.  There is no breeze within the confines of the recently erected mobile village, and inside the RVs, the only places to sit, the only places out of the sun, are still more confined, hotter, more oppressive.  There are no customers to “customer service” and I am glad this is not my real job.  I force my attention toward the other salespeople, hoping that the writer in me can leave the show satisfied, even if the budding saleswoman does not.

I ask questions, pretending I am an undercover reporter.  I am HST.  I have forgotten my drugs.  Sweat seeps from my pores and my company polo shirt sticks to my back and to my underarms uncomfortably.  I contemplate leaving.  When I do not leave, I contemplate the Stanford Prison Experiment.  I wonder how far I will go down the sales rabbit hole, now that I am here and have been named.

The bickering starts in the pressurized heat of the second day.  Jerry has made a lot of sales, a sort of absurdly large number compared to the average and there are many opinions about it.  Doyle whispers to me that Jerry is stealing sales, that those people belong to someone else.  Pushy and possessive.  If you are talking to someone, they are yours.  If you hand out a card, give them your name, they are yours.  Don’t talk to someone else’s customer, ever.  If you know they have been claimed, and you talk to them, you will be accused of stealing.  Doyle and Eric whisper themselves to a frenzy when they see Jerry sitting down with yet another claimed customer.  They chain smoke as the evening winds down and we close up the trailers.  Doyle makes plans with a bottle of moonshine and mutters about the karma that will come back around to Jerry.

I have made my own misstep in ownership.  My first sale is to a couple who have apparently been shopping around causing distress for over a year.  Mr. and Mrs. Samson are in their 70’s and know exactly what they want.  They have done enough research that they have moved past the point of convincing themselves to buy and have come all the way back around to unsure again.  Mrs. Samson wants to pay wholesale.  She says she has found a wholesaler in Indiana who will sell her the trailer she wants for two thirds our asking price.  We are not a wholesaler.  If she wants to drive to Indiana there is nothing stopping her.  I am not a pushy saleswoman.  I tell her we cannot meet the price in Indiana, but we can save her a drive.  I am indifferent to the idea of her buying an RV today.  I say I am indifferent, but I am not quite.

She wants to sit down, but doesn’t want to buy.  I don’t mind wasting time because I don’t know what I’m doing, anyway.  I would be unlikely to make another sale during this time.  The Samsons tell me they’ve spent the last year and a half running circles around Eric, but that they want to work with me.  I’m not sure if disloyal customers make me a thief in this system.  I tell my sales manager.  I find Eric.  He calls the couple a bunch of ass holes and says he’d tell them not to waste is fucking time.  I ask if he wants to talk to them and he says he has bigger fish to fry in Motor Homes.

Neither of us think the Samsons are buying.  We both know I’m wasting my time.  But when I make the sale, the chittering is about me.  I don’t like it, and try to mend things with Eric, and also to defend myself.  The grocery store was catty and sniping and I was glad to be out of it.  With this, my first sale, I am no longer the girlfriend of; I am a threat.  I must establish dominance.  I must retreat into soft laughter to put the others at ease.  I will strike when their guard is down.

Eric and I make up when, at the end of the day, we both work ourselves into a heated rage at Steve, who has stolen clients from each of us.  “Is that your little girl?” Doyle asks, coyly, pointing to a family speaking to Steve.  It is.  I claimed that family an hour ago.  Everyone knew I was looking for a little girl in pigtails, that she was mine.

“There you are,” I say to the husband, while Steve climbs out of a trailer.  This is the salesman’s coded phrase meaning back the fuck off my customer.  I smile.  “I found the information you were looking for, and a few new models that are coming out in the Spring if you want to take a look.”  I am reasserting my right to this family.  They are mine.  They talked to me first.  I have learned these tactics quickly, picked up the rules of the game and the key phrases to employ.  But Steve ignores my use of the magic words, he ignores me.  He speaks only to the customers, looks only at the customers.

I know nothing about sales, but I will not be pushed aside by this man.  The heat is too much.  I am getting too involved.  Am I prisoner or guard?  I hate Steve and talk about the ethics of the situation all the way back to the hotel.  Waiting for the elevator with my boyfriend, I am still complaining.  The doors ding and open; Steve walks out.  He is a thief and I hate him.

I am sunburnt and exhausted.  The soles of my feet are so sore I worry for the continued health of my plantar fascia.  My mind wanders to the barbaric practice of caning the soles of the feet and the lasting damage it can inflict.  What lasting damage is being inflicted upon me?I dream again of stress.  The grocery store, being yelled at, falling, loose teeth, fighting assailants.  I wake up in tears, wondering what I’ve done with my life, how I have ended up here, in this hotel room, wondering if I can accept the failure I have signed up for this weekend, the constant rejection and dismissal.  We go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and Munchkins® and we are late for morning meeting.

On day three, the weather goes from oppressive heat to ceaseless rain, and I am wearing the wrong shoes.  Jerry’s sales have kept up, and people do not applaud him when he collects his cash.  More whispers.  Eric begins to doubt himself, sees his upcoming dry spell stretching before him, though none of us can, and he fights the premonition with melancholy and rage.  He will make no more sales at the show.  The rain brings Eric’s gloom, but as the weather settles on the final day, so will he.  I glare at Steve and keep an eye out for yesterday’s stolen customers.

Alice and Doyle have given up.  Alice smokes behind the destination trailer in the back and tells me about her girlfriend.  They are fighting.  She hasn’t slept.  Doyle is sleeping only after full quarts of moonshine.  He counts the number of questions he answers and laments his sales number, which is zero.  Eric gets into a screaming match with Alice over something not quite related to the show and they are both too distracted to sell.

I’ve learned to ask how many sales, learned to compare myself to others in categories they know, to quietly, but consistently bring up my largest sale, to ask others if they’ve reached their goal, knowing it will force them to say no.  I pick out customers who are really in the market.  I know nothing about RVs but I tell the customers stories.  “Do you have any trips planned for the fall?” I ask, hoping to plant in their mind the vision of their next vacation in this very unit.  “Your grandkids will have much more space in this come Halloween,” I say.  Am I pushier, now?  Am I one of them?  I find myself adopting a slight drawl.  I stalk the customers who smell like buyers, clip conversations short when people don’t even know their towing capacity.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, scheduled to last 14 days, was eded abruptly after only 6, when the lead researcher’s girlfriend informed him that the entire thing was immoral.  Everyone had taken to their roles too well.  The “guards” had too quickly resorted to psychological torture. The “prisoners” had written letters home using their inmate numbers in place of their names.  At the end of day four, I am smoking a cigarette, and basking in glory.  My sales numbers are strong, and my wallet is full of this strangely-won cash.  Doyle has made no sales, and leaves abruptly in a cloud of cigarette smoke.  Zimbardo, the man responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment, maintains that none of the participants experienced any lasting psychological damage from those six days in the basement of the Stanford psych building.  He kept track of them.  They say they learned a lot about themselves.



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