Monsoon season. I dreaded monsoon season. It came with pounding rain. Wiper blades couldn’t keep up. Eyes peeled, steering wheel gripped, I was just hoping that the next Arizona crossing was not concealing a torrent. At least I knew what to expect. I’d gone through it the summer before. The memories of fishtailing through a few desert floods vividly came back. Avoiding being swept off a two-lane highway, especially in the middle of nowhere, was my only thought. There was a plus side; the rain momentarily brought the temp down to below a 100. If it happened right after lunch, I could even touch the door handle getting back in the car. How could I forget those mouth-watering meals at Stuckey’s, or was it Howard Johnson’s? It was just another memorable dining experience fitting neatly within the confines of my modest daily per diem.
This was a typical day of selling personal care products, my first full-time salaried position after college. It had benefits and everything. I was one of two company representatives for the entire state. He had the north. I had the south. Unless it was something new for the test market, one really didn’t have to sell an individual product, especially from a major consumer product company. Selling was all about quantity. The number of cases ordered measured success. Ours was a household name, Colgate-Palmolive. The name was on the toothpaste, the shaving cream and of course, the soaps. They had all been staples for generations. There were other products, some were even recognizable. Who can forget Ultra-Brite, Wilkinson Sword Blades, Rapid Shave, Ajax and Irish-Spring? All right maybe you can forget, but back then, our parents, and maybe even our parents parents, had these products under the sink, in the shower, or in the medicine cabinet. They all absorbed a fair share of the company’s advertising budget.
In most of 73 and 74, this was a day in the life as far as my summer commute was concerned. Town to town, I had places to go, people to see, and more importantly, quotas to meet. My boss made sure of that. Crisscrossing the desert in my company owned 1972 Chevy Impala was the Monday through Friday routine. What an experience, especially when my inherited land yacht bottomed out even with the slightest undulation in pavement. As exciting as all of this was I was disappointed. I really had hoped for one of those blue sailed Martian sand ships “Chronicled” by Bradbury. (I did read Ray’s book.) Ah yes, this was the life of a traveling salesman; case-packs, end-caps, purchase orders and flights of fantasy included. From Ajo to Douglas, Nogales to Gila Bend, Tombstone to Bisbee, at one time or another I’d traversed nearly every town in the Grand Canyon State. Droning conveyor belts carrying the dwindling supply of copper ore were still in evidence. Strange that old downtown store front drug stores, and the pioneering discount department chains of the time were the destinations. The Phelps-Dodge Merchantiles dotted the itinerary. They were the oases in the center of the company owned mining towns along my route. Even the “Outposts” on the lands of the Navajo and Yavapai-Apache Nations were on the schedule.
So what about the job itself? The region included the coast and the far west. In terms of quotas our’s was underperforming. The pressure was on especially in the office of the regional vice-president. Ahead of written confirmation, we were to call in as to our productivity; which stores did we visit, how long were we there, and above all, how much product was sold? This went on everyday, including the obligatory Sunday night call from the regional headquarters in southern California directing our itinerary for the upcoming week. I especially looked forward to the comments, “Is that all?” or, “Why did that stop take so long?” Mind you, I was hired into this environment. This was not a world of my own making. I was on my own. Although my immediate boss was some 400 miles away, he was always looking over my shoulder. Other than the two weeks in a corporate classroom, I spent the balance of my first 30 days in the car learning from my northern counterpart. With the company procedural three ring binder resting on the Chevy’s bench seat, I was off, a vanguard for personal hygiene. I had to learn the unique corporate cultures of each of my newfound clients; conglomerates, independents and the native contingents alike.
From Gemco to Skaggs, these all but forgotten discount retailers were all different. In each, I had to figure out who was in charge or better yet, who controlled the purchase orders? The manager might approve the acquisition, but it required a P.O. and those were sometimes under lock and key, treated as the coveted possession of someone in the warehouse. It was usually a lower level person working the back roll-up door. He usually was busy, out to lunch, or at least made it look so. Normally, he did not particularly like those smart-ass, tie wearing college guys coming around interrupting his day. Near the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, this was his only source of power and authority. He had the key to the vault. I had to wait my turn.
All in all, selling was not the hard part. It was waiting for someone on the payroll to realize you existed. If I stood around on the sales floor long enough, I was often pegged as a store employee. After a few visits, I could even respond: “Yes Ma’am, that would be on isle six.” There was a whole lot of time wasted unless the store permitted me to construct a pre-authorized end cap. It was even a good time to stock shelves with the Colgate products already on-site and checked in. They weren’t doing a whole lot of good sitting on the floor in the stockroom. Yet, I had to remember if they permitted sales reps to stock shelves or not. Some did, some didn’t. Still others were just plane careless allowing one of my competitors to push my items out of sight in favor of his own. (At the time, all field reps were men) I always thought the culprit was the Burma-Shave guy. All in all there were just two things to remember: Always carry a case-cutter and remember how many facings your products was alotted. In the world of toothpaste, Proctor & Gambles Crest always had the most. Colgate was always second. Products that sold the most got the most.
At the end of the day, this was the job. On top of the nightly logs, weekly sales reports were done on Sunday, by hand, in black ink, and mailed to California Monday morning. Once a month, this exercise also included my time card and 30 days worth of expense reports. There was no company office in Arizona so I basically worked out of my car. Nightly tallies were completed in motel rooms, coffee shops, or back in my apartment in Tucson. I was amazed that there were Colgate reps that had been doing this for 20 plus years, you know, old guys in their 40’s. This is all they had ever known. Reminiscent of Glengarry Glen Ross, their success was measured in terms of volume and annual bonus checks. At least for the industry, in that day and time, this was the lament of a company representative. My perceptions of this world was validated when commiserating with some of my competitors. The guys from P&G, J&J, Lever Brothers, Chesebrough-Ponds, all sang the same song. After a few Friday night beers and the exchange of war stories and samples, I’d head back to my apartment and wondered, is this it? Even counting Saguaro cacti along the roadside got old real fast. I refused to read the Burma Shave signs. There just had to be something more. Is this why I went to college? I had to remind myself what motivated me back then. Maybe I needed to revisit the notion of grad school. But this time, I surely needed a better sense of direction. Given that I was always on the road and not a local, I usually was alone. At the ripe old age of 25, this allowed for a whole lot of time to think. Wasn’t your degree in Political Science and Economics? What does traipsing around the Gadsden Purchase have to do with John Stuart Mill and Milton Freidman? This wasn’t working as evidenced by my bi-weekly flights back to the coast. I’d stayed in touch with old flames and band mates. There were still some gigs to play. I still had my voice. I was a good back-up singer and the drum kit had not been mothballed. There would be some cash-flow. It seemed a return to California and a new role as a grad student was just around the bend.