Monsoon season. I dreaded monsoon season. It came with pounding rain, and I had to drive in it. Since the wiper blades couldn’t keep up, everything beyond the windshield just disappeared. White knuckled and eyes peeled, I was just hoping that the next Arizona crossing was not a torrent. The roar of the storm always brought it all back, those memories of being swept off two lanes of blacktop in the middle of nowhere. But, of course, there was a plus side; the rain brought the temperature down below 100. Even door handles were momentarily touchable. Days like this brought new meaning to the “Traveling”side of being– a Traveling Salesman. With two years under my belt, I was still driving from here to there selling personal care products. It was my first full-time salaried position after college. I was the newest sales representative for Colgate-Palmolive’s western region.
It had benefits and everything, a company car, health insurance, and a lifetime supply of samples. It even had a generous per diem. Boy, did I take advantage of that? It was breakfast at the Waffle House, lunch at Denny’s, and then back to my 1 to 2-star accommodations at Motel 6. Reasonable facsimiles did apply. Of course, this routine was interrupted when the clients were within a three-hour drive of my apartment in Tucson.
Up at the crack of dawn, I had places to go, people to see, and quotas to meet. The senior regional vice president 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 the 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, endcaps, 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 AZ. Droning conveyor belts carrying the dwindling supply of copper ore were still in evidence. Strange how old downtown dry good stores were on the itinerary. Phelps-Dodge Mercantile buildings still dotted the route. They were the oases in the center of the postage stamp company-owned mining towns along the way. Even the “Outposts” on the lands of the Navajo and Yavapai Apache Nations were on the schedule.
Organizationally, there were just two of us servicing the entire State. He had the north. I had the south. Unless it was some new item for the test market, we really didn’t sell products. We didn’t have to. After all, our lines were long-standing household staples with a Fortune 500 pedigree. The name was on the toothpaste, the shaving cream, and of course, the soaps. Our job was to sell quantity. The number of cases ordered measured success. Volume discounts were the ticket.
So, what about the job itself? The region included the coast and the far west. In terms of quotas, the area itself was underperforming. The pressure was on, especially in the office of the boss. We were to call in our productivity; which stores did we visit, how long were we there, and above all, how many case packs did we sell? This went on every day, 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. It was not a world of my own making. I was indeed on my own. Although my immediate supervisor was some 400 miles away, we routinely had our morning and evening chats. In hindsight, thank God for the limitations of a landline. 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. That’s the only real training I got. With the company procedural three-ring binder resting on the Chevy’s bench seat, I was finally turned loose, a vanguard for personal hygiene. I was off learning the unique corporate cultures of my newfound clients, conglomerates, independents, and the native contingents.
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 requisition, but it required a P.O. Those were sometimes under lock and key, treated as the coveted personal possession of someone in the warehouse. It was usually a lower-level employee working the back roll-up door. He usually was busy, out to lunch, or at least made it look so. Usually, he did not particularly like some smart-ass tie-wearing college guy coming around to interrupt his day. Near the bottom of the company food chain, this was his only source of power and authority. He had the keys to the vault. I had to wait my turn.
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 aisle 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 even permitted sales reps to stock shelves. Some did, some didn’t. Still, others were just plain careless, allowing one of my competitors to push my products out of sight in favor of his own. I always thought the culprit was the Burma-Shave guy. As an aside, back in the day, all the reps were men.
All in all, there were just two things to remember: Always carry a case-cutter and remember how many facings your products were allotted. In the world of toothpaste, Proctor & Gamble’s 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 preparing my timecard and 30 days’ worth of expense reports. There was no company office in Arizona, so I worked out of my car. Nightly tallies were completed in motel rooms, coffee shops, or back in my apartment. I was amazed that some Colgate reps were doing this for 20 plus years, you know, old guys in their 40’s. It 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, this was the lament of a company representative in that day and time. My perceptions of this world were validated when commiserating with some of my competitors. The guys from P&G, J&J, Lever Brothers, and Chesbrough-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? Is this why I went to college? A day of boredom interrupted by bad weather and rude people wasn’t cutting it. Counting Saguaro cacti along the roadside even got old and I certainly wasn’t going to read the Burma Shave signs. Eventually, I had to remind myself what motivated me. Maybe I needed to revisit the notion of grad school. But if I did that, I needed a better sense of direction than I had as an undergrad. Since I was always on the road and not a local, I usually was alone. It gave me a whole lot of time to think. Probably too much time. Wasn’t your degree in Political Science and Economics? What does traipsing around the Gadsden Purchase have to do with any of that. This wasn’t working, as evidenced by my bi-weekly flights back to the coast. I’d stayed in touch with old flames and bandmates. Deep down, there were still some gigs to play. I still had my voice. I was a damn good backup singer, and the drum kit had not been mothballed. At least, there would be some cash flow should I decide to crack some more books. It seemed a return to California, and a new role as a grad student was in order. Two years of sailing across the desert were enough.
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